A governor’s task force created to forestall an abandonment of 233 miles of northern Maine freight tracks deemed essential to the state’s economy will meet May 12 in Caribou, a state official said Monday.
The 15-member Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force will meet for the first time from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center, said Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and officials from the state DOT and the federal Surface Transportation Board, which mediates railroad disputes, met privately April 22 in Washington to discuss MMA’s proposed abandonment, Latti said.
“Each side has signed confidentiality agreements regarding the negotiations, so while I can tell you that the sides have met and will be meeting, there is not much else that I can say,” Latti said Monday.
Gov. John Baldacci announced on April 26 the membership of the task force, which will help DOT buy and manage the tracks if voters approve a $7 million bond package in a June referendum, DOT officials said.
MMA sought federal approval in February to abandon the tracks, most of which run from Madawaska to Millinocket, by summer, citing losses of $4 million to $5 million annually.
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. Several freight railroad services besides MMA have expressed interest in a lease deal, state officials have said.
The state would add $7 million in cash to the purchase while rail stakeholders, which include 22 major Maine manufacturers, would contribute $3 million in hauling fees.
The task force is charged with maintaining transparency in the purchase and crafting the best deal for taxpayers.
Under STB regulations, the parties involved have 110 days from the date of MMA’s abandonment request, Feb. 25, to save the tracks, said Robert Grindrod, the railroad’s president and chief executive officer.
That would have given all sides a June 15 deadline to make a deal for the tracks’ preservation, but STB extended the deadline by three weeks to give the railroad and its stakeholders a chance at private mediation. That sets the deadline at July 9, Grindrod said.
“There has only been one [mediation] session so far,” Grindrod said Monday. “I suppose the STB will call us back if there is to be another.”
The stakeholders have said that the tracks’ elimination would devastate their ability to get their products to market, calling the tracks vital to the state’s economy.
State transportation Commissioner David Cole is the task force’s chairman. The vice chairman is Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport. A meeting agenda will probably be released by Friday, Latti said.