$57.8M bond deal includes rail line buy

Posted April 12, 2010, at 1:33 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Monday approved a $57.8 million bond package containing money to purchase northern Maine’s last major rail line after Democratic and Republican leaders worked over the weekend to negotiate a smaller borrowing package.

In one of the Legislature’s last actions of 2010 session, both chambers approved the bond bill by the necessary two-thirds majority, although only by a single vote in the House.

Gov. John Baldacci signed the slimmed-down bond bill after delivering closing remarks to the Legislature, which adjourned for the year shortly before 5 p.m. Monday.

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The bonds will appear on the June and November ballots along with borrowing proposals approved by the Legislature last year.

Monday’s vote came four days after a partisan stalemate in the Senate thwarted Democrats’ efforts to push through an $85-million bond package.

“Some wanted more, some wanted less and some wanted something totally different,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. “But this bond package has been, and is, about jobs.”

The highest-profile portion of the package is $7 million to preserve roughly 240 miles of rail lines into Aroostook County that the financially troubled Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway plans to abandon later this year.

That figure is less than the $17 million proposed in the original bond bill. But lawmakers plan to cover the remaining acquisition costs by pulling $7 million from the state’s reserves and with $3 million that has been pledged by shippers that are using the line.

Proponents of the railroad plan have predicted that the loss of freight rail into northern Maine would cause ripple effects throughout the state’s forest products, manufacturing and agriculture industries.

Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Presque Isle Area Chamber of Commerce, said the bond measure sends a message that freight rail is important not only to Aroostook County but also to the entire state.

“The issue now will be to share that message with the voters,” said Fowler, who along with other Aroostook business leaders has spent the past several weeks working to build political support for the rail bonds.

The measure, if approved by voters, would authorize the state to issue more than $44 million in new bonds largely to finance transportation infrastructure improvements. In addition to funding to purchase the MMA line, the package also includes:

• Nearly $25 million for highway maintenance and construction statewide.

• $9 million for rail improvements in Lewiston and to restore a western Maine rail line between Portland and Fryeburg.

• $6.5 million for a deep-water ship berth in Portland.

• $5 million for development of offshore wind power.

• $5 million for a new dental school and dental care programs in rural Maine.

In a key change, however, lawmakers opted to fund more than $13 million worth of projects by rewriting bond measures already slated to appear on the ballot later this year. That compromise was necessary to pick up crucial votes from GOP lawmakers who wanted to lessen the amount of new debt voters were being asked to approve.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye called the scaled-back bond bill “a vast improvement in terms of fiscal responsibility.”

“I think both sides of the aisle felt pressure to come together,” said Raye, R-Perry.

Last Wednesday, Senate Democrats failed to pick up a single Republican vote on their $85 million bond package.

Working over the weekend, the two sides agreed to reduce the size of the bond proposal and to reappropriate the roughly $13 million from bond packages already headed for a vote later this year. The biggest change was reallocating $12 million in bonds that would have gone toward energy weatherization.

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, said reducing the scope of the bond package was key to winning his support on Monday.

“If they didn’t come down, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” he said.

Sherman acknowledged that the bond issue had put him in a difficult political situation. He opposed the original debt levels and questioned whether some of the projects would create jobs.

But like the rest of the delegation from Aroostook, Sherman said preserving freight rail was critical to maintaining companies in The County as well as to sending a positive messages to businesses considering locating in Maine.

“I hope it works,” said Sherman.

Sen. Richard Rosen of Bucksport was among the five Republican senators to vote against the bond measure. Rosen, who sits on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, also questioned whether the Democratic Party was using so-called “jobs package” as a political tool in the coming gubernatorial race.

“I believe that the size of the bond package still exceeds what we can afford considering the huge constraint on the General Fund budget and the massive gap — probably around $1 billion — that the next Legislature and governor will be confronting next January,” Rosen said.

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