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Rail line issue to bring federal officials to Maine

Posted March 15, 2010, at 9:43 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:58 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Federal officials will be in Maine next month to meet with local and state officials and stakeholders regarding the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway’s notice of intent to abandon its 233 miles of rail lines in northern Maine.

The meeting will be held Thursday, April 8, in Bangor. Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, and Joel Szabat, acting secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, plan to attend the meeting.

During a March 4 Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee hearing, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pledged to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that he would send federal transportation officials to Maine to help develop a plan to keep the railway operating.

“Aroostook County is facing the imminent loss of virtually all the freight rail service for this area,” Collins said in a written statement. “I appreciate that the secretary of transportation is fulfilling the commitment he made to me to send federal officials to Maine to meet with local and state officials, and stakeholders, in an effort to work together on a plan to address this very serious issue.”

The tracks targeted for abandonment run from Madawaska to Millinocket, with spurs to Caribou, Easton, Houlton, Limestone and Presque Isle. Close to two dozen of Maine’s largest manufacturers and growers use those lines for shipping.

MMA, which is based in Hermon, has said the tracks are no longer profitable to maintain.

MMA said it has been losing $4 million to $5 million a year on the lines, citing high operating costs and low shipping volume as a result of the economic climate. MMA provides the only freight rail service in Aroostook County, serving primarily the pulp and paper, agricultural and potato processing industries.

Trains travel the line two or three times a week, according to MMA officials.

In Aroostook County, business leaders, economic development groups and others who rely on the tracks for business purposes have rallied state and federal officials to support keeping rail in The County.

Fraser Papers in Madawaska and Louisiana Pacific in New Limerick use the lines for shipping. Louisiana Pacific transports approximately 50 percent of its outgoing shipments by rail.

Travis Turner, Louisiana Pacific plant manager, has pointed out that four truckloads of product can fit on one rail car.

Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud also have announced that the Surface Transportation Board, the federal regulatory agency that governs all U.S. railroads, will hold a separate public hearing in Maine regarding MMA’s notice of intent. Collins wrote to Daniel Elliott, Surface Transportation Board chairman, urging him to hold the hearing in Maine, and Michaud also pitched for a hearing.

Michaud praised news of the hearing, saying a Surface Transportation Board spokesman had said it is very rare that these field hearings are held.

“With this hearing, the Surface Transportation Board will hear firsthand just how devastating this action could be for Maine’s economy,” Michaud said. “Many Maine businesses rely on freight rail service, and it would be a major economic setback for the entire state if these lines are abandoned. It’s crucial that Mainers have a chance to illustrate the significant impact that abandonment will have on our state.”

Ed Gilman, spokesman for Michaud, said Monday that a date has not yet been solidified for the hearing, but said the Surface Transportation Board has indicated that it would take place in late April or May.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe also has been working to save the rail lines, and state officials are pushing for preservation of the tracks.

Last week, Gov. John Baldacci announced the details of a $79 million bond proposal that includes money to save the rail line and to fund transportation projects across the state.

The package includes $31 million for highway or road projects, $9 million for port or harbor improvements, and $17 million for environmental and energy projects. The proposal also includes $17 million to purchase the rail lines.

If approved by the Legislature, the $79 million in bonds will go to the voters in June, joining three other bond proposals already appearing on the ballot totaling nearly $69 million.

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