Maine delegation rallies to save railroad tracks

Posted March 05, 2010, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:58 a.m.

Maine’s congressional delegation is pushing the federal government to save 233 miles of railroad tracks from a proposed abandonment that they say would wreck the state’s economy.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has agreed to work with her and others to keep the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway line operating.

“If the MMA rail line is abandoned, it will be devastating to Maine’s economy, especially given the already steep 9.8 percent unemployment rate in Aroostook County,” Collins said Thursday.

The tracks targeted run from Madawaska to Millinocket, with spurs to Caribou, Easton, Houlton, Limestone and Presque Isle. Twenty-two of Maine’s largest manufacturers and growers, including Fraser Papers, use those lines for shipping, they have said.

Based in Hermon, MMA says it has been losing $4 million to $5 million a year on the lines, largely due to the recession and housing industry collapse.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District wrote a letter Thursday co-signed by Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, urging the Surface Transportation Board to hold a public hearing in Maine on MMA’s application to abandon the freight lines.

“It is essential that the STB take the time to fully consider the impact that the decision will have on established businesses and broader development efforts throughout northern Maine,” the letter states. “A field hearing will guarantee that every Mainer has an opportunity to present the full effect of the abandonment to the STB.”

The Surface Transportation Board is an economic regulatory agency that Congress charged in 1995 with resolving railroad rate and service disputes and reviewing proposed railroad mergers.

U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, said she also is working to save the lines. Snowe said the abandonment “would be a devastating body blow to residents and employers within the region.”

On Wednesday, Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole endorsed a $25 million bond proposed Tuesday that would maintain rail service and improve rail maintenance. He said several rail operators have expressed interest in running the freight lines, including MMA.

Gov. John Baldacci also expressed support for saving the lines.

“We have been actively involved in that [discussion],” Baldacci said Wednesday. “I think there will be funding, whether it is a bond package or from within the Department of Transportation. There is no question that we have to [maintain] that line.”

Under federal guidelines, the state has about 100 days to devise a salvage plan.

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