After many, many years of transportation and environmental studies conducted by the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) devoted to proposals for a U.S. Route 1 bypass of Wiscasset village, on May 24 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued its determination of the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) route for the bypass. With the LEDPA determined, that means that if a bypass does get built, its location has been decided.

Of the three locations that were still under consideration, regulatory agencies will only permit the one that is identified in the LEDPA. That location, or bypass route, is known as N8C (or the "long bridge"). While the Corps' decision is not the N2A option preferred by MaineDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), MaineDOT officials say the department can work with the decision, and it will drop the other options from further consideration.

According to MaineDOT officials, while the Corps' decision is a crucial step in the approval process for a bypass, there is still a long way to go before a bypass would actually be built. The department says it will meet with FHWA to discuss how a funding plan might be approached in light of the current fiscal environment. At the very least, says MaineDOT, it will need to clearly identify which properties it will need to purchase for the one route that can be permitted. A clear designation of the route will also identify those property owners who will not be affected by the bypass.

Substantial controversy has existed over the years as to whether a bypass is a good solution to traffic congestion and summertime backups on Route 1 in Wiscasset. And there was disagreement on which bypass option was the most favorable. The Midcoast Bypass Task Force, established in 2008, met for over a year to discuss the controversial issues and a possible resolution. In late 2009, MaineDOT and FHWA submitted their request for a LEDPA determination to the Army Corps. That request identified the longest route (N2A) as their preferred option, based on numerous discussions with the Task Force and on its unanimous agreement not to oppose that location.

The Army Corps chose N8C over N2A because, it says, "We believe that alignment N8C requires the least amount of direct and indirect impact to marine and freshwater aquatic resources and to upland habitat, it minimizes impacts to the human environment, and it has equal or greater overall effectiveness." The May 24 letter announcing the LEDPA also says, "Citizens and interest groups within the communities affected by this project have been active and vocal throughout the planning process. Public opinion, as reflected in our public notice comments, continues to vary, with similar support expressed for the No Build, N2A, and N8C alternatives." The letter also says that "The selection of the LEDPA does not preclude additional minor reroutes or other minor changes in project design that may arise. Similarly, the Corps retains discretion to revisit the LEDPA determination should substantial new information on impacts to the environment or affected public interest factors arise."

"MaineDOT is committed to continuing its work with all affected parties as it completes the environmental process and seeks the funding to preserve the corridor and eventually build the bypass," said Kat Beaudoin, chief of planning at MaineDOT. "This is the closest we've ever come to getting the go-ahead for solving a problem that has affected the economic vitality of this portion of the midcoast region for over 40 years. We know not everyone will be happy with the solution, but if we don't take advantage of this major decision, it will be a lost opportunity."

MaineDOT will hold a public meeting Tuesday, June 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. in Wiscasset to discuss the Corps' determination and what happens next. The department had not yet firmed up where the meeting would be, but it will be announced by early next week.