The Maine Department of Transportation began seeking bids to conduct a publicly funded study of an east-west highway across northern Maine nearly a month before Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill authorizing it.

Critics of the long-debated New Brunswick-to-Quebec proposal said the revelation is further evidence that politically motivated proponents of the project and the LePage administration rammed the proposal through the Legislature without due diligence or considering the project’s impact.

The department has the authority to commission such studies, and Department of Transportation officials said the administration was being proactive when it sought bids for the $300,000 study on March 13, 22 days before LePage signed the bill that commissioned the feasibility study. The bill was signed April 5, nine days before the department stopped taking proposals from contractors.

The process was also initiated without public notice, a move that may violate the state’s Freedom of Access law, according to a member of the state’s Freedom of Information Coalition.

Ted Talbot, a department spokesman, acknowledged that the department did not post public notice of the bid process on its website or a daily newspaper. Talbot said the bid targeted pre-qualified consultants that the agency solicits for specialized projects.

Mal Leary, a board member with the Freedom of Information Coalition and owner of the Capitol News Service, said the Department of Transportation “can put out a request for proposal and target who they think will be interested, but they have to give public notice that they’re doing it.”

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, the lead sponsor of the bill, on Monday asked LePage to slow the study amid concerns among his constituents that the highway would lead to property seizures via eminent domain. LePage announced a day later that the administration would extend the timeline to complete the study.

Thomas, chairman of the Transportation Committee, which vetted the bill, said Wednesday that he was unaware that the Department of Transportation initiated bidding during the legislative process.

“I thought they did (the bidding) after the bill was passed,” he said, adding that the department is authorized to go out to bid on any project it wants.

But critics of the east-west highway proposal said it was unusual, and inappropriate, to approve a bid process that taxpayers were paying for and one that could have been changed during vetting by lawmakers.

“It shows the confidence they had in getting it through,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, adding he too was unaware that the Department of Transportation was accepting bids before the bill was enacted. “It’s unusual for a department because … they were committing to receive (bids) before they got permission to do it. It just underscores how they thrust themselves into this thing.”

Talbot said the process was initiated in “preparation for legislative action.”

“We were being proactive,” he said. “We did that because we knew that the Legislature would mandate a short schedule (to complete the study) and we wanted to be able to meet that schedule.”

But critics said changes to the bill could have altered the scale and price of the study. Initially the proposal called for the state to fund the study $300,000, but the bill was changed so that state was reimbursed by the developer if the project advances.

Cianbro Corporation CEO Peter Vigue, a longtime advocate for the $2 billion, 220-mile closed-access toll highway, was a driving force behind the legislation. The PIttsfield-based company’s top officials are longtime Republican campaign donors, leading project opponents to speculate that the proposal has been fast-tracked so that Republican lawmakers can claim job-creation policy victories while Cianbro used the study to attract investors.

“The whole thing doesn’t add up,” Diamond said. “It adds up politically, but the numbers and chronology don’t.”

It’s not unusual for companies to conduct so-called investment-grade, or “bankable,” project studies to draw private investment. However, some have questioned whether the $300,000 study authorized by the Legislature would serve that purpose.

Pete Didisheim, director for Natural Resources Council of Maine, a group that opposes the highway, said such studies are detailed and expensive. Additionally, he said, Cianbro may have to disclose more information about the project than it has.

Alan Grover, a spokesman for Cianbro, said Vigue was unavailable for comment. Grover referred questions about the study to a statement company released Monday.

The company has not released detailed maps of the proposed route of the highway.

“The entire purpose of this bill is to help a private company seek financing for a massive highway that Maine people don’t want,” Didisheim said. “The proposed highway almost certainly would would require use of eminent domain to seize the property of Maine people.”

Didisheim said Cianbro should “show people the map” before initiating the study.

Nathan Howard, a planner for the Department of Transportation, said the department received one bid to do the study from HNTB, a national firm. Howard said the bid was rejected because it didn’t meet the scope of the study. He acknowledged that cost was an issue, too.

Didisheim speculated that the Department of Transportation proponents may have significantly underestimated how much a bankable analysis would cost.

“It may be beyond the scope of money that (the department) had, but it would have been precisely the level of analysis that Cianbro was seeking,” he said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the project are recalibrating their political messaging.

Before Thomas asked LePage slow down the study process, the Maine House Republicans Facebook page boasted that the project would created over 2,000 private sector jobs. LePage, in a booklet released by the administration in May, also touted the project.

LePage, in a statement released Tuesday, said the east-west highway was “an idea that’s been around for a dozen years and that’s what it is, an idea. We must explore the facts and go on a fact-finding mission, and that is what the state is doing. Right now, we need to decide where we want to put an east-west highway, is it feasible, and what would the costs be.”

Diamond said that lawmakers and the administration should have been more thoughtful before passing the study.

“They wanted to push this thing through but now dusts kicks up,” he said. “It’s made the whole process look a little foolish.”

 

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