PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The more than 60 people who attended a meeting to discuss the development of the Maine Rail Plan told state officials on Tuesday evening that the most pressing statewide and regional rail issue facing them is the fear that Aroostook County may lose vital railroad track in the near future.
The crowd gathered at the University of Maine at Presque Isle to take advantage of the only opportunity for County residents to weigh in on the immediate future of Maine railroads.
The state has hired consulting firm HNTB Corp. to formulate the Maine Rail Plan to serve as a blueprint for improving rail access in the state for both freight and passengers.
The Westbrook-based firm is conducting research to determine both the capacity the state’s system already has and what is possible in the future. HNTB intends to present a draft of its plan, which is required by federal rules if the state is to be eligible for federal rail funding, by December.
The Presque Isle meeting was attended by municipal leaders, business and economic development officials and private citizens.
David Cole, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, assured the crowd that the state wants to do more than just meet the requirements of federal law.
“We want to make a plan that meets the needs of businesses, shippers and others,” he said.
One person who attended said she wanted to see the state bring passenger rail service to The County. She noted that rail would be able to run in all weather conditions, enabling motorists to travel in poor weather and avoid striking moose and other wildlife on roadways.
Others stressed it was vital to keep rail service reliable and cost effective.
The majority of those who attended said they are most concerned that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway desires to sell or abandon its tracks between Millinocket and Madawaska.
The 241 miles of track are about half of what the railway, formerly Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, owns in the state. The lines are used by freight trains transporting products such as pulpwood, heating fuels, wood chips and cooking oil in northern Penobscot and Aroostook counties.
Trains travel the line two or three times per week, according to company officials.
The tracks and land are worth about $17 million. Upgrading the tracks would cost an estimated $6 million, and the annual maintenance expense would total about $2.5 million.
At this point, the company is asking the state to consider buying the tracks and maintaining them. Citing the economic downturn and heavy losses, company officials suggested that the state’s purchase of rail service would be the best possible solution.
A decision on the matter is not yet final. The legal process for abandoning rail lines takes between eight and 12 months.
“We are looking at the real possibility of being without a rail system if MMA abandons it,” said an audience member. “Our most pressing regional issue is to maintain the amount of rail we have here.”
Others agreed, describing the rail system as a lifeline to the area. They insisted that the state should invest in rail as it invests in roads.
Speaking on behalf of the Loring Development Authority, Diane Martin, executive assistant at the Loring Applied Technology Center, told state officials the railroad is a major asset to the state. She said the LDA frequently is asked about regional rail service by potential businesses looking to set up shop in The County.
“We want rail service to continue,” Martin said.
Larry Clark, executive director of the Presque Isle Industrial Council, agreed. He said it is “imperative and essential” that the rail system be preserved.
“Loss of rail is a major concern,” he said. “Having rail in our toolbox to promote industrial development is crucial. The city and the Industrial Council need it.”
Others said that the state has to do more to market the existing rail service, saying the right marketing would increase the number of rail shipments in and out of the area. They maintained that a variety of products can be shipped to and from The County.
HNTB officials said there would be another round of hearings in November or December after the draft rail plan is complete.