Rail deal at center of $85M bond package

Posted April 06, 2010, at 8:47 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:57 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The proposal to have the state purchase the only major rail line serving much of northern Maine is likely to take center stage today as lawmakers debate whether to seek voter approval for an additional $85 million in bonds.

The bond package that emerged from the Legislature’s budget-writing committee late Monday contains $17 million to purchase roughly 240 miles of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway tracks between Millinocket and Madawaska.

Local lawmakers and businesses served by the MMA line predict that loss of freight rail service into northern Maine would harm some of the largest employers in Aroostook County and, in turn, cause ripple effects throughout the state’s economy.

But Republican lawmakers blasted the larger bond package Tuesday, which comes less than a year after the Legislature approved a two-year, $150 million bond package.

The GOP opposition raises questions about whether the Legislature’s Democratic leadership can muster the two-thirds majority needed to send the bonds to voters later this year.

“No reasonable argument can be made that the state can afford more debt,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, a Bucksport Republican and one of five GOP members to vote against the $85 million bond package in the Appropriations Committee.

The package contains roughly $35 million for road construction and maintenance, more than $5 million for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects, and $5 million for wind energy initiatives. There is also $5 million for a new four-year dental school and dental care programs in rural areas, $10 million for other rail projects and $7 million for a deep-water berth in Portland capable of accommodating larger cruise ships.

By far the largest single allocation is the $17 million proposed to purchase the MMA tracks between Millinocket and Madawaska.

Faced with millions of dollars of financial losses annually, MMA has said it would abandon the line that now serves more than 20 companies — including many of Aroostook County’s largest employers — unless the state or another entity buys it.

If approved by the Legislature and voters, the state would buy the tracks but lease the lines to another company to run the railroad.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, called the vote on the rail money contained within the bond package “the most important vote for Aroostook County that we have ever taken” during his 40-plus-year career in the Legislature.

“If the rail goes, I don’t know what we are going to do,” Martin said Tuesday evening. “I think we will lose a lot of businesses.”

But the inclusion of the money within the larger bond package has put other Aroostook lawmakers in a potentially tough political spot.

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, said he and other GOP lawmakers made it clear they might be able to support up to $35 million in bonds if it included the money for the MMA lines. The $85 million proposal was a “deal buster” for him, Sherman said.

“I can’t vote for that,” he said. “They loaded it up with everything.”

Likewise, Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, said he strongly supports bonds for the Aroostook lines but could not support the larger bond package.

Rep. Charles Theriault, D-Madawaska, said he was concerned the tensions between Democrats and Republicans over state borrowing could scuttle the efforts to allow the state to purchase the MMA lines. But Theriault said he and others — including business representatives headed to Augusta from The County on Wednesday — would continue to press their case with Republican lawmakers.

“I’m optimistic, we just need a few more votes,” Theriault said.

Earlier Tuesday, House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport, said he believes the majority of the Republican caucus opposes the bond measure. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said the same of the GOP caucus from the other chamber.

Tardy said he understands the need to preserve the rail line but called the proposed acquisition of the MMA tracks “a very poorly planned, poorly acted out proposal.” Instead, the state should be exploring alternative options with the private sector, he said.

Raye and Rosen agreed.

“I’m not convinced that is the only option out there to preserve the line, and clearly that should only be the option of last resort,” Raye said.

Several major businesses served by the MMA line, including Irving Woodlands, the state’s largest private landowner, have been discussing forming a cooperative to run or contract out the rail line and pay for repairs and regular maintenance. But Jim Mitchell, a lobbyist for Irving, said that plan still depends on the state purchasing the tracks from MMA.

The House is expected to begin debating the bond proposal this morning.

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