End of the road for Gateway 1 project in Mid-Coast Maine

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AUGUSTA — The Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced cancellation of Gateway 1, a regional planning project for Route 1 in the Mid-Coast.

The announcement came as a shock to the members of the project’s implementation steering committee, who represent towns within the Gateway 1 project area. They learned of the project’s demise Tuesday afternoon in a letter from David Bernhardt, commissioner of the Department of Transportation.

“I think it’s unfortunate for Brunswick, given the time and energy we put into this, and we weren’t consulted on the decision,” Town Manager Gary Brown said.

The project, which was awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 Rural Smart Growth award, was designed to reduce the impact of future development along Route 1 while preserving rural areas, and creating affordable housing and public transit options. It began in 2005, and involved communities from Brunswick to Stockton Springs.

Brunswick was one of two communities to have officially signed onto the project.

“I found out at 2 p.m. (Tuesday),” Stacy Benjamin, the project administrator, said. She said she was aware that Bernhardt had met with other DOT staff to discuss the project, but did not know there were plans to pull the plug.

Don White, chairman of the steering committee, said he was equally surprised. He said that neither he nor any of the town representatives on the committee were included in the Thursday Feb. 24 talks with Bernardt and Gov. Paul LePage about whether to close down the project.

“I’m saddened that this has taken place and I’m disappointed,” White said. “The decision was beyond us.”

Chris Mann, the DOT’s project manager for Gateway 1, said the project was canceled so suddenly because towns within the Gateway 1 corridor were beginning to officially sign onto the project through votes at town meetings or by their town councils.

“I needed to get some sense of whether (the DOT commissioner and governor) were on board with this or not,” Mann said. “…  It doesn’t make sense to have all these towns go to town meeting and have all this approved only to find out that it’s not the direction we want to go.”

In his letter, Bernhardt wrote, “we have come to the conclusion that while Gateway 1 has been a very worthy effort, it does not correspond with the immediate priorities of this administration.” He said roads and bridges are the LePage administration’s top priorities.

But Evan Richert, former director of the State Planning Office and a subcontractor on the Gateway 1 project, said he believes Gateway 1 is completely aligned with the DOT’s priorities because it tries to “avoid the need for new capital expenditures (along Route 1)” by reducing traffic along the highway.

He also said he was disappointed that no one on the steering committee was given advance notice of the decision.

“To do it in the way they did it, and to appear not to recognize that Gateway 1 was aimed at the same priorities they’re aimed at, is confusing,” he said.

Not everyone is upset that Bernhardt and LePage decided to end Gateway 1. Eden Spear, who was an alternate from Nobleboro on the implementation steering committee, said she was very pleased.

“I think that Gateway 1 has some good ideas, but I think it’s an over-reaching plan and I think it’s getting into areas that should not be government-controlled,” Spear said. She said she met with LePage on Feb. 19 to discuss her concerns about the project, and said that the governor was receptive to her ideas.

“He told me that I could tell (a group of Republican town officials from Lincoln County) that he was not in favor of Gateway 1,” Spear said.

Dan Demeritt, the governor’s spokesman, said the plan was canceled because it “is a planning exercise, and the Department (of Transportation) is going to move away from spending money on planning and spend more money on paving and fixing bridges.”

Demeritt said the DOT has spent $2.4 million on the project since 2005, and had allocated another $443,000 in grants to towns in the region.

When asked why the decision was made so abruptly, Demeritt said that “sometimes people have a hard time with the idea that Paul LePage is quick to make decisions, is quick to come to an understanding about what’s going on.”

White said members of the steering committee have already begun to discuss informal ways to move forward on the plan. He said he’s trying not to dwell on the sudden cancellation.

“I’m more interested in moving this process forward,” he said.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net