Of railroad bondage

Posted April 09, 2010, at 6:16 p.m.

A bond issue, which must be approved by voters, isn’t the best way to keep a railroad in business. But given that the railroad owners have threatened to abandon the line and that lawmakers are set to end their annual session, agreeing on a bond package that includes funds for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is the best readily available way to preserve the transportation link.

This winter, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway filed a “notice of intent” with the federal Surface Transportation Board to abandon 233 miles of its track in Aroostook and Penobscot counties. The notice covers the railroad’s line from Millinocket to Madawaska with spurs to Presque Isle, Easton, Limestone and Houlton.

The abandonment is necessary, the railroad says, because it cannot make money on the line.

Immediately, efforts began to preserve the rail service, which serves many of the region’s largest employers. These efforts include the state’s congressional delegation, whose work to secure federal funding to upgrade the tracks would be undermined by state inaction. These efforts must include stronger commitments, including financial, from the companies that rely on the line to use it as their main shipping mode.

The House Wednesday approved an $85 million bond package for the June ballot that contains $17 million for the state to buy the rail line. The Senate approved the package later in the day, but not by the two-thirds margin required for borrowing plans. No Republican senators voted for the bond package, which includes money for other rail projects, road and pier work and other projects aimed at creating jobs.

Democratic legislative leaders decided to recess until Monday before trying again to get the bond passed.

Some Republicans object to the new borrowing plan (there already are three bonds totaling $68.85 million on the June ballot) because they don’t believe the state can afford new debt. This is a concern as the state is expected to face large gaps between revenues and expenditures for the next several years — despite the more than $1 billion in spending cuts in recent years — but borrowing to create jobs makes sense as the recession appears to be easing.

Others believe that money for the railroad should be part of the bonds that already are on the ballot. This would require renegotiating compromises that were reached last year, which could easily doom the entire process.

Still others believe that state borrowing is not the right way to keep the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic route operational. There may have been better ways to do this, but with the abandonment date fast approaching, this is the track the state is on. At the same time, the state must ensure there is a sound business plan to increase traffic on the rails in exchange for the state financial involvement.

Some hold out hope that the Surface Transportation Board will see the importance of the railroad to northern Maine and deny Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s application. The board’s record on such matters is 54 to 0 in favor of allowing abandonment.

Keeping the rail line operational through state borrowing and acquisition is not the perfect solution. But denying the bond in the absence of viable alternative ensures the rails will be torn up, forcing companies that are among the region’s largest employers to ship their products by truck, draining financial resources that could have gone to job preservation and creation.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/04/09/opinion/of-railroad-bondage/ printed on July 24, 2014