MDOT, Talbot confirmed, "absolutely" is using this public-private partnership law as a guide in furthering the East-West Highway. In the law, through an exemption to the state's Freedom of Access Act, much of the planning for the highway will be done in secret.
In the Orono interview, Vigue said he was "not familiar" with this law. But in March he promoted the highway at a public meeting in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where MDOT commissioner David Bernhardt told the group, "We have public-private partnership legislation in place" for the highway, according to the Bangor Daily News.
And in a speech to the Orono conference Vigue referred to the East-West Highway as a "public-private partnership" or "3P." (3P is a buzzword for government-corporate financing schemes, more often used in Canada and Europe than in the US.)
The sponsor of the bill that created Maine's only 3P law, W. Bruce MacDonald, a Democratic representative from Boothbay, said the East-West Highway was not on his mind when he introduced it. He said he was interested in pushing the long-discussed possibility of a Route One bypass of Wiscasset.
But highway lobbyists and MDOT helped him write it, he said. And the long list of cosponsors reads like a Who's Who of Democratic and Republican movers and shakers, including then-Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, of North Haven, a Democrat, and Republican Representative Stacey Fitts, of Pittsfield, now chairman of the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee.
Cianbro, a construction company with national reach, is headquartered in Pittsfield. When the 3P law passed, Cianbro had already presented to MDOT, in 2008, its plan for the highway. (Other plans for an East-West Highway stretch back decades.)
Maine's 3P law also provides guidelines for government-corporate financial sharing. In the interview Vigue insisted that highway financing will be entirely private. The cost is projected at $2 billion. He said he's now interviewing prospective financers.
Before such a transportation project can go forward, the law requires that "the private entity must provide a traffic and revenue study." Reversing itself, the Legislature has now authorized taxpayer funds to pay for it. The law also requires the Legislature to approve a project before it can be built.
In the law, the exception to the Freedom of Access Act reads: "All records, notes, summaries, working papers, plans, interoffice and intraoffice memoranda or other materials prepared, used, or submitted in connection with any proposal considered . . . are confidential and not subject to public review" until the proposal is accepted or rejected by MDOT.
The MDOT, however, gave the Phoenix the department's "request for proposals" (RFP) for the feasibility study. Talbot said MDOT is currently evaluating bids from consultants to do the study, which is to be completed by the end of the year.
Chris Buchanan, who leads Defending Water for Life in Maine, a small environmental group focused on opposition to the highway, said the study is "primarily a handout to the private companies that would be invested in this road and corridor." The developer, though, is required to pay back the state's expense if the project moves forward.
The study won't take into consideration the highway's environmental impact, which the NRCM's Didisheim said might end up being reviewed under the state's Site Law; shoreland zoning, storm-water, and Land Use Regulation Commission laws; plus federal wetlands and endangered-species laws as well as the National Environmental Protection Act.