Bond battle heats up in Augusta

Posted April 06, 2010, at 3:11 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – State lawmakers are preparing for a heated debate over a proposed $85 million bond package that contains money to purchase the only major rail line serving much of northern Maine.

After several hours of meetings, members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee voted along party lines late Monday night to endorse an $85 million bond package focused on transportation, energy, water projects and dental care.

That figure is in between the $99 million proposed by the Legislature’s Democratic leadership and the $79 million package proposed by the Baldacci administration.
House leaders are hoping to begin debate and take an initial vote on the bond package Tuesday afternoon.

But Republican leaders are pledging to fight any additional state borrowing less than a year after they agreed to a $150 million bond package. Some of those bonds still have not gone to the voters.

“I think there is a short memory in this building that we negotiated what we thought was a 2-year bond package last year,” said Rep. Sawin Millett, a Waterford Republican and member of the Appropriations Committee.

“I would say the majority [of Senate Republicans] would not be supportive of any bond issue,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, a Perry Republican and the Senate minority leader.

But Republicans opposition to any bonds is not unanimous.

Northern Maine lawmakers from both political parties are supporting the use of bonds to purchase roughly 240 miles of rail lines now owned by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc.
Faced with millions of dollars of financial losses annually, MMA has said it would abandon the line stretching from Millinocket to Madawaska later this year unless the state or another entity purchases the tracks.

Abandonment would mean that more than 20 companies in northern Maine – including many of Aroostook County’s largest employers – would lose access to freight rail.

The bond package endorsed by the majority of the Appropriations Committee members contains $17 million to purchase the MMA lines. The state would then lease the tracks to another company, which would actually operate the railroad.

The bond proposal from the Appropriations Committee also includes:

• Nearly $35 million for highway construction and maintenance
•  $7 million for a deep-water berth in Portland.
•  $5 million for wind energy development.
•  Roughly $5 million for improvements to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.
• $5 million for a 4-year dental school and for dental care programs in rural areas.
• $10 million for other rail projects.

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