BANGOR, Maine — Two top-level federal transportation officials will meet with Maine, Montreal & Atlantic Railway stakeholders next month to see whether the U.S. government should help save 241 miles of railroad tracks from a proposed abandonment that state officials say would wreck Maine’s economy.
At the invitation of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, and Joel Szabat, acting secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, will attend the meeting, said Kevin Kelley, the senator’s spokesman.
The meeting will be held at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building.
“We want to bring together the stakeholders and outline the situation for the officials from the Department of Transportation,” Kelley said Thursday. “Senator Collins is hopeful that this meeting will help federal officials to see how critical this situation is and to find a solution that will keep the rail line operating.”
The targeted tracks run from Madawaska to Millinocket with spurs to Caribou, Easton, Houlton, Limestone and Presque Isle. The lines are used for shipping by 22 of Maine’s largest manufacturers and growers, including Fraser Papers.
Based in Hermon, MMA says it has been losing $4.5 million a year on the lines, largely due to the recession and housing industry collapse. MMA President and Chief Executive Officer Robert C. Grindrod said he hoped the meeting would lead to constructive steps that would solve rail line problems.
“I hope that we can all sit down together and talk about solutions instead of just finger-pointing,” Grindrod said Thursday. “Talking about what has happened in the past isn’t going to improve anything. We have a problem here now, so let’s deal with it. Let’s not turn this thing into a photo op.”
According to a state study, abandoning the freight lines would put another 36,000 18-wheel trucks on Maine roads and cause another 200 accidents annually while adding as much as $1 million in transportation costs to each of the 22 companies affected.
State transportation officials have endorsed a proposed $25 million bond issue that would maintain rail service and improve rail maintenance. Several rail operators have expressed interest in running the freight lines, including MMA, if the bond is approved.
The proposal is part of a $99.2 million bond package. It includes $5 million in basic rail line repairs planned for the next few years with a backlog of deferred capital maintenance projects. Totally restoring the lines would cost as much as $20 million, state officials say.
The federal Surface Transportation Board is also due to hold a hearing in Maine on the proposed closure by the end of May, said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. The date and location have not been set.
Collins and fellow Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and Michaud support saving the rail line.
Under federal guidelines, the state has about 100 days to devise a salvage plan.