BANGOR, Maine — The federal government could be the last to invest in plans to save 241 miles of northern Maine rail lines, but it won’t be the first.
Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, told representatives of 22 northern Maine manufacturers during a meeting Thursday that they must form a public-private partnership with the state and contribute money or other aid to acquire federal funding to save the rail lines.
“The federal government can’t put the first dollars into this deal, but we can be the final dollars in the deal,” Szabo said.
“The bottom line is that there is both the intelligence and the interest in putting the right package together in this room. We are willing to be part of that,” he said during the meeting at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building.
Szabo’s support — and statements from the people with a stake in the railroad who attended the meeting — should make passage of a proposed $85 million bond package more likely, said Gov. John Baldacci, who chaired the session.
The package contains $17 million to buy the threatened Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway lines. The proposal is stalled in the Legislature. Lawmakers are expected to revisit the issue Monday.
“It’s very apparent that we have a vast economic need here” for the rail lines, Baldacci said. “Let’s work together to come up with the right way to ensure that the best interests of the state of Maine are fulfilled.”
Baldacci said that he and state Transportation Commissioner David Cole will meet Friday to form a smaller group of stakeholders to begin fleshing out the partnership.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who helped arrange Szabo’s visit, pledged to help save the rail lines. Both belong to congressional transportation committees.
“The public-private partnership is the key element to this,” Collins said.
MMA officials sought federal approval in February to abandon the tracks, most of which run from Madawaska to Millinocket, by summer. The company, which is based in Hermon, has been losing $4 million to $5 million a year on the lines due to the recession and housing industry collapse.
Railroad officials and a virtual who’s who of Maine industry impressed upon Szabo the need for the rail lines.
People attending the meeting included leaders from Fraser Papers, Irving Woodlands LLC, Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., Old Town Fuel & Fiber, R.H. Foster Energy LLC, and Seven Islands Land Co.
All agreed that a northern Maine without rail lines is inconceivable.
The lines serve about 5 million acres of forest, 90 percent of which is harvested by the state forest products industry, said Denis Berube, director of transportation and planning services at the Northern Maine Development Commission.
Much of that product would be stranded, and as many as 1,722 jobs could be lost immediately, if the rail line goes down, Berube said.
A state Department of Transportation-commissioned study shows that abandoning the freight lines would put another 36,000 18-wheel trucks on Maine roads.
This would cause another 200 accidents annually while adding as much as $3.5 million a year to DOT maintenance costs, Berube said.
Another 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel would be expended annually if the rail service stopped, Berube said, and Maine manufacturers would likely absorb those costs — with diesel fuel costs starting to top $3.15 per gallon.
Seven Islands President John H. Cashwell III, whose company manages nearly a million acres of forestland, said his company restarted a sawmill because its managers expect that the housing market will shortly start rebounding.
That restart, and many other jobs, will be lost if the rail goes down, Cashwell said.
The trickle-down effect from the loss of the rail line would affect the entire state, causing higher diesel fuel prices and layoffs at subsidiary industries, meeting attendees said.
“To lose the rail lines at this time would be terrible,” said James Irving of Irving Woodlands. “It’s not just about Aroostook County. It’s about the entire state.”