Group seeks freight rail service Down East

Posted April 20, 2009, at 8:34 p.m.

EASTPORT, Maine — The Washington County commissioners hope to attract money from the federal government’s stimulus package to restore rail service to parts of the county and improve the movement of freight into and out of the Eastport port at Estes Head.

A $125,000 engineering study is needed first to determine the feasibility of using an abandoned section of rail line from Calais to Ayers Junction in Charlotte to a rail yard in Perry. Money for the engineering study would come from the federal Economic Development Administration.

“It would restore a link to Perry, which would be enormously important for the port because they would just have a very short haul to get stuff from the port to this new rail yard in the town of Perry,” state Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Monday.

The Washington County commissioners recently voted to take a leadership role and pursue funding for the engineering study through the EDA.

“When you have rail connections it increases your abilities to reach markets,” Chris Gardner, director of the Eastport Port Authority, said Monday.

Gardner, who also is chairman of the commissioners, recused himself during the vote. Commissioners Kevin Shorey and John Crowley supported it.

Raye said Monday that funding for the engineering study was a necessary first step, but urged caution.

“We have had a series of dashed hopes in Washington County,” he said. “So we are doing our due diligence to try to put everything together to facilitate in making this happen. We are blessed in that we have strong and committed partners in our U.S. senators, and we are doing everything we can to move this forward, and we are hopeful.”

Gardner also is guardedly optimistic, but warned that restoring rail service would be a long and difficult process. “We don’t want to raise people’s expectations,” he said.

Raye said most of the tracks are still there, although in need of repair.

The Maine Department of Transportation along with Pan Am Railway, which operates rail service from Vanceboro to points south and west, would play a role in the study, Raye added.

“They [Pan Am] do the section right now from Baileyville across to New Brunswick. It goes up to and crosses at Vanceboro and across the state,” he said.

If the engineering study recommends that the project move forward, the proposed funding for the rail restoration project would come from the federal economic stimulus package, according to Eastport City Councilor John Miller. “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes $1.5 billion for a new discretionary multimodal program, called the ‘Supplemental Discretionary Grants for a National Transportation System Program,’” Miller stated in an e-mail to county officials and the news media.

Work is going on behind the scenes.

Gardner, Raye and other members of the county’s legislative delegation have been working with state agencies, the governor and members of the congressional delegation.

“We had a meeting in Augusta a few weeks ago to talk with interested parties and the [Maine Department of Transportation] to see what the possibilities might be. We certainly have interest for [rail service] and we certainly want to try,” Gardner said. “We are not to the point where we can make a major announcement because there are a lot of details to work out.”

In the wake of the recent announcement by the Montreal-based Domtar Corp. that it was idling its pulp mill in Baileyville, port officials have been scrambling to look at new shipping opportunities for the port. The pulp produced at the Baileyville mill was taken to Eastport by truck and then shipped to foreign destinations.

“Realistically, we all know we all could be facing some very interesting times should the Domtar situation become permanent,” Gardner said.

Rail is the answer, he said.

Raye said an improved Ayers Junction link to Calais would not interfere with the rails to trails project, which involves a plan to turn 87 miles of inactive rail bed in Washington and Hancock counties into public trails.

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