Gov. John Baldacci has created a watchdog group to oversee the proposed abandonment of about 240 miles of northern Maine freight rail lines and possible state purchase of those lines, he said Tuesday.
Announced a day after state legislators approved a $57.8 million bond package containing $14 million to buy northern Maine’s last major rail line, Baldacci ordered the creation of the 13-member Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force.
“This task force will ensure that [the] abandonment and acquisition process is done openly and in a way that protects the interests of Maine taxpayers,” Baldacci said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “It will also work with the Department of Transportation and other interested parties to develop an operating plan once the rail-road is purchased.”
That plan, Baldacci said, will include the creation of a public-private partnership with the state, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway or another carrier, and 22 stakeholders — including some of Maine’s largest manufacturers and businesses — to help acquire federal funding to save rail freight service in northern Maine.
During a meeting in Bangor on April 8, Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, recommended the formation of such a partnership.
Maine, Montreal & Atlantic 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 because of the recession and housing industry collapse.
The task force will oversee acquisition of the lines by the state only if voters approve the bond package. The $57.8 million proposal will appear on the June and November ballots along with borrowing plans approved by the Legislature last year.
Baldacci will name seven members for the task force, including a chairman and vice chairman, and David Cole, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, or Cole’s designee; three economic development representatives from Aroostook County; two business stakeholders in the rail lines recommended by the 22 stakeholders using those lines; and a representative of a statewide business organization.
Senate President Elizabeth H. Mitchell will appoint two Senate members, a Democrat and Republican. House Speaker Hannah M. Pingree will appoint four House members, two from both parties, and at least four representatives on the panel will be from Aroostook County, Baldacci said.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia M. Snowe and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud or their staff representatives can participate as nonvoting members.
Representatives of Fraser Papers, Irving Woodlands LLC, Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Old Town Fuel & Fiber, R.H. Foster Energy LLC and Seven Islands Land Co. have pressed to save the rail lines, saying their businesses would be devastated without rail service.
The lines serve about 5 million acres of forest, 90 percent of which is harvested by the state forest products industry. Much of that product would be stranded, and as many as 1,722 jobs could be lost immediately if the rail line goes down, industry representatives and state officials said.
Federal Surface Transportation Board officials will hold a field hearing at 9 a.m. Monday, May 10, at the Presque Isle District Court building to discuss MMA’s handling of the rail lines.