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Money-Saving Planning Effort Squelched by Maine Gov. Paul LePage

3:46 PM EST on March 4, 2011

For six years, retiree Don White has been representing the town of Camden as part of a committee working to preserve the character of rural communities along Route 1 in Mid-Coast Maine.

Volunteers like White, from some 15 towns from Brunswick to Stockton Springs, have been collaborating to produce a corridor action plan that would tame traffic, limit sprawl and preserve the beautiful vistas that make this area an important summertime tourist destination. Last year, their efforts had earned the praise of the EPA, who recognized the Gateway 1 Corridor Planning project for Smart Growth Achievement.

Then on Monday -- without warning -- White received an electronic copy of a letter from Maine State Department of Transportation saying the Gateway 1 planning process had been suspended. White was informed that the state's new administration, led by Republican Governor Paul LePage, wants to shift its focus.

"Given the significant and growing fiscal constraints under which we are operating, our top priority must be to focus our time and scarce resources on existing short-term critical infrastructure needs -- roads and bridges primarily," said David Bernhardt, commissioner of the State Department of Transportation in the letter.

In an interview Wednesday, White, who is the chairman of the Gateway 1 Steering Committee, said he still hadn't received a paper copy of the letter.

"We had no knowledge that this was coming at us," White said. "I‘m disappointed and I’m sad that the funding and that the entire program has been suspended immediately."

White said he recognizes that there is a new administration and that budgets are lean in Maine. But he points out that the state DOT itself started this program just a few years ago and recruited volunteers like him. The group has donated hundreds of hours to the process.

What's more, the planning effort was designed to reduce congestion and wear and tear on Route 1 through thoughtful land-use planning. It was hoped that these efforts would save the state the expense of having to build costly bypasses, which can have catastrophic effects on small towns. The 15 participating communities were preparing to enter an inter-local agreement that would have established a regional development plan, including the creation of "core-growth" areas near traditional town centers.

A spokesman for MDOT said the Gateway 1 program has received about $2.4 million in support from the state over its six-year history. The state was due to put an additional $29,500 into a number of local grants to support the project soon, plus another $450,000 this year. It won't be sending that money. But project manager Chris Mann acknowledged that money saved by canceling the Gateway 1 project won't go far if redirected toward building roads, which cost between $1 and $3 million per mile to build.

MDOT officials were adamant that the governor's decision had "absolutely nothing" to do with bizarre claims posed recently by some from the state's Tea Party movement, who had tried to connect the Gateway 1 planning program with a vast United Nations conspiracy to impose a global government.

Members of the Tea Party had attended recent Gateway 1 meetings and claimed that the initiative was part of a "socialist, central planning directive" intended to shift the population from rural areas into high-density areas. At a recent meeting of the commission, Tea Party members questioned commission members about a 1992 resolution of the United Nations, known as Agenda 21. None of the committee members, who are residents of towns that are part of the planning process, had heard of it.

Jarrod LeBlanc, a reporter with Maine Web News, outlined the concerns in a video on the issue.

“Skeptics see Agenda 21 as an action plan to implement a 21st Century move toward a global government -- a new world order, if you will -- where unelected elitists, mostly from the old money families of Europe, will rule the world,” LeBlanc said in a story titled "Mainers Oppose Agenda 21 and Gateway 1 Corridor Action Plan."

White said the Tea Party members who have attended some of the commission's meetings have been civil. "They said we didn’t know what we were doing," he said, "but we were definitely part of Agenda 21."

He shrugged off the controversy: "Like any program, there’s always a few that would like to ask a lot of questions," he said.

Despite the governor's decision, White said he hopes the planning process can continue in a less formal manner, possibly supported by grants.

Officials from MDOT said they would not oppose such an effort, though they couldn't say whether the department could officially support it.

Gary Toth, transportation director at the Project for Public Spaces and the former head of the New Jersey DOT, says the loss of the Gateway 1 Program is a terrible setback for the state of Maine. The program was a shining example of grassroots local planning to help preserve communities and reduce infrastructure costs and congestion.

Traditional interventions -- road and bridge projects -- like those endorsed by Governor LePage, will be far more costly than planning efforts, especially because the historic and coastal nature of Route 1 make it a poor candidate for widening.

"This whole livability movement is a way to preserve everybody’s way of life, it’s a way to give everybody more choices, it’s a way to save everybody money," Toth said.

"You can’t just stick your head in the sand. It’s shortsighted."

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