Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, the state of Maine and a federal agency that mediates railroad disputes will meet privately soon in an attempt to prevent the loss of 233 miles of freight tracks deemed essential to the state’s economy.
The federal Surface Transportation Board’s decision Monday to postpone its field hearing on May 10 in Presque Isle for three weeks — so that the three parties can engage in mediation on MMA’s attempt to abandon the tracks — was greeted as good news.
Under federal regulations, states have limited time to devise railroad salvage plans when a railroad formally seeks to abandon tracks. MMA sought federal approval in February to abandon the tracks, most of which run from Madawaska to Millinocket, by summer.
The postponement “turns the clock off for three weeks to see if both parties can come up with a fair and reasonable deal,” David Cole, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said Monday.
“You don’t want to negotiate the deal in the press,” Robert C. Grindrod, MMA’s president and chief executive officer, said of the mediation process.
MMA, which is based in Hermon, says it is losing $4 million to $5 million a year because of the recession and housing industry collapse.
Gov. John Baldacci has pledged to help save the tracks. On Monday, he announced the membership of the 15-member Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force that would help DOT buy and manage the tracks.
The state plans to buy the tracks and lease them to a rail operator that would keep northern Maine’s freight moving, preserving as many as 1,722 jobs that could be lost if the freight lines were abandoned.
Voters must approve a $7 million bond package in a June referendum for the deal to work, Cole said. The state would add $7 million in cash while rail stakeholders, which include 22 major Maine manufacturers, would contribute $3 million in hauling fees.
The postponed hearing likely would have aired the state’s need for the rail lines and MMA’s problems maintaining them. Some shippers have complained that MMA frequently blows deadlines and mismanages cargoes. Grindrod said the railroad’s difficulties are caused by its need to preserve safety standards, MMA’s lack of funds for track upgrades, and problems shared by the freight service and its clients.
Confidential mediation might keep the salvage effort from devolving into a finger-pointing contest, all sides agreed.
The private mediation “gives both parties the opportunity to step back and reconsider the tough issues that are going to have to be dealt with,” said Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud.
It signals “that indeed we are committed to retaining freight rail service to the companies along the 233 miles of the Madawaska-Millinocket corridor and will continue our efforts to maintain and expand economic vibrancy across the state,” Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe said in a statement Monday.
“This is not going to be a backroom deal because ultimately it has to be approved by the governor’s task force,” Grindrod said.
If mediation fails, the Surface Transportation Board hearing would proceed. No revised date is set, Michaud said.
STB Chairman Daniel R. Elliott III will visit Maine whether the mediation fails or succeeds. If it fails, he likely will join the hearing; if not, residents will meet him in a less formal setting, Michaud said.
A successful mediation, Michaud said, would help the state’s congressional delegation secure federal funds for track rehabilitation. The delegation knows the track’s value, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement.
The track’s abandonment “would virtually eliminate the ability of shippers to move freight between the northern one-third of Maine to the southern region of our state,” Collins said.
The mediation might help DOT to finish the framework of the track-purchase agreement before the June referendum, Cole said.
“Obviously, we won’t be purchasing the railroad [tracks] until we have the necessary funds,” Cole said.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John E. Baldacci announced Monday the membership of the Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force, which is charged with ensuring transparency to the state’s effort to save 233 miles of freight rail lines that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway seeks to abandon.
Baldacci’s appointees are:
• Chairman: David Cole, commissioner, Maine Department of Transportation.
• Vice chairman: Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport.
• Thaxter Trafton, commissioner, Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
• Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
• Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington.
• Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.
• Rep. Charles “Ken” Theriault, D-Madawaska.
• Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell.
• Alternates: Reps. Richard Cleary, D-Houlton; Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou.
Private business stakeholders in the rail lines:
• Jeff Dutton, president, Twin Rivers (formerly Fraser Papers).
• John Cashwell III, managing director, Portage Wood Products.
• Travis Turner, plant manager, Louisiana-Pacific’s New Limerick mill.
Representatives of economic development agencies of Aroostook County:
• Robert P. Clark, executive director, Northern Maine Development Commission.
• Virginia “Ginny” Joles, president, LEAD (Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development).
• Chris Anderson, chairman, Aroostook Partnership for Progress.
Representative of a statewide business organization:
• Dana Connors, president, Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Invited to participate as ex-officio, nonvoting members:
• A representative of Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Democratic 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud.
Invited to participate as stakeholders (nonvoting):
• Economic development, civic and community organizations and affected businesses.
• Other interested individuals and organizations.
• State representatives or senators from affected areas.