AUGUSTA, Maine — Lingering suspicions about plans to build a 220-mile east-west highway through central and rural Maine drew a large crowd to a legislative hearing Friday on a bill to make documents related to projects like it public.

Sponsored by Assistant House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the bill, LD 721, aims to lift confidentiality protections from public-private partnerships for transportation projects.

“The bill language is simple,” McCabe testified. “It makes all records, notes, summaries, working papers, plans, interoffice and intraoffice memoranda or other materials prepared, used or submitted in connection with any public-private partnership proposal public.”

However, Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, told the Transportation Committee on Friday that the east-west corridor is not a public-private partnership, which means that, the confidentiality condition McCabe’s bill aims to remove does not apply.

“I understand the frustration of people who want to know what’s going on here,” Van Note said, but the proposed east-west highway doesn’t meet the definition of a public-private partnership as defined by Maine statute.

Van Note also said the public would have access to information about the proposed route and environmental impacts through permitting processes that would be required for the project to move forward.

The concept of an east-west highway through central and northern Maine has been around for more than a decade. The most recent incarnation envisions a private toll road.

The previous Legislature appropriated $300,000 to have the Maine Department of Transportation conduct a feasibility study of the proposed project. After one of the project’s proponents, Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, asked for a delay in that process on behalf of his constituents, Gov. Paul LePage asked the Department of Transportation to put the brakes on the feasibility study in August 2012.

Van Note told the Transportation Committee on Friday that the department hasn’t conducted the study, so there would be nothing to reveal if McCabe’s bill passes. He said that the department had spent “a few thousand dollars in staff time” to prepare a request for proposals, but that no acceptable proposal was submitted.

A significant majority of those who testified Friday spoke in favor of the bill. Among them were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and residents of communities that potentially could fall in the path of the highway. Some argued that the Department of Transportation’s involvement in the project, even on a limited basis, should ensure public access to details.

“Decisions about who the government enters into partnership with and how they spend our taxpayer money are certainly matters of public importance,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine.

Bellows responded to a question about why public records related to welfare recipients can be kept confidential by noting that general information about public assistance programs is available to the public.

“Exempting a whole program is wrong and out of keeping with other areas of Maine statute,” Bellows said.

Others who testified in support of McCabe’s bill expressed concern that the public should be able to assess the environmental impact of the project from the outset.

Jenn Gray of Maine Audubon argued that wildlife are a public asset, and that full public access to information about the proposed route is essential for assessment of habitat loss and other impacts.

John Banks, natural resources director for the Penobscot Nation, said the project’s “lack of transparency” could pose problems for adherence with the 1980 Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.

Tribal members want to continue activities “that our ancestors have passed down to us for thousands of generations,” he said. Shielding information about a proposal that could cut through “the heart of our hunting and gathering territories” would make it difficult for Maine’s tribes to “make appropriate planning decisions.”

Jane Edwards, who identified herself as a former deputy state law librarian, raised concerns about whether municipalities or other public entities would be saddled with financial burdens if the project fails.

Van Note said McCabe’s bill also would hinder future public-private partnerships because private firms would not invest in development studies that could become available to competitors.

“If you want that tool in the toolbox, you must have a confidentiality provision,” he said.

A leading proponent of the east-west highway, Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield, has said the project can be accomplished without any eminent domain takings and without encroaching on public lands protected by conservation measures.

“This is a private project that we are working on and funding internally,” Vigue told the BDN by phone Friday. “It does not fall into the category of a public-private partnership as is outlined in previous legislation. In terms of sharing information with the general public we have been very open and shared our thoughts and our ideas in public meetings with different groups. Beyond that, I don’t believe we’re in a position to share any more information or make this any more transparent than anyone would within the inner workings of a private business.”

BDN reporter Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.