BELFAST, Maine — Maybe, just maybe, train whistles will be heard again in downtown Belfast.
At Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting, members of the Brooks Preservation Society detailed their proposal to begin operating the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad all the way to the Belfast waterfront. The operation began running trains between Burnham Junction and Belfast’s Route 1 bridge last summer.
The restoration of the excursion rail line would inject life into a moribund tourism economy, proponents argued, but some councilors detailed concerns that the railroad would interfere with other development plans for the waterfront — including the planned Coastal Walkway — and said they have unpleasant and unforgettable memories of a difficult last go-round with the railroad.
Belfast & Moosehead Lake suspended its operations in 2007 after more than 140 years of business.
“This isn’t the first time the railroad is coming to town asking for anything,” said Councilor Mike Hurley. “That is why I have a huge amount of skepticism.”
Although the preservation society isn’t asking the city for any money, it wants to reconstruct a section of the track over a city right-of-way between the former Stinson property and the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad parking lot.
“I want the city to have a chance to reconnect this railroad,” said resident Russell Barber, who has been volunteering with the Brooks Preservation Society. “I’m a citizen who believes in what we’re doing here.”
Proponents tried to assure a somewhat skittish City Council that if they give the go-ahead to the railway but later change their minds, the preservation society will leave the waterfront within 60 days.
“I see this as a no-lose situation for the city,” said Mayor Walter Ash.
Councilors saw letters of support for the railroad from the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Comfort Inn and others, as well as endorsement postcards signed by 50 businesses and residents.
“The railroad’s purpose is to carry people,” wrote Capt. Melissa Terry Welch of Belfast Bay Cruises. “These people will spend money elsewhere in town … I am sure there are many who remember what it was like to have 20,000 to 30,000 people coming to ride the rails and visit Belfast. I know I do and I wouldn’t have started my business if I could have foreseen the complete demise of the railroad four years ago.”
According to the Brooks Preservation Society’s business plan, the group will operate regular train excursions on weekends from May through October, with two trips per day planned initially. They project to more than quadruple their passengers from 2009 to 2013, from 5,520 this past season to more than 22,000 by 2013.
Executive Director Joe Feero said the society would place an emphasis on promoting the railroad, and would work with tour bus and cruise ship lines to attract more riders.
“What we offer the city is an immediate plan to provide activity on the waterfront,” Feero told councilors. “I’m convinced that the railroad may hasten development.”
One major hurdle that railroad planners have not yet cleared is permission to operate on a portion of the track between the Route 1 bridge and the footbridge that is owned by Jay McCrum of the Penobscot McCrum potato processing company.
If that permission is granted, councilors said they want to talk again to the railroad organizers.
“I have a lot of visions for this area,” said Councilor Eric Sanders. “Until tonight, they did not include the Brooks Preservation Society or a train station there.”