PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Saturday that she is optimistic that members of a governor’s task force created to stop the abandonment of 233 miles of northern Maine freight tracks understand the importance of the railroad to businesses and communities in Aroostook County, and that trains will continue running on the tracks.
Collins was at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on Saturday to give the commencement speech at the college’s 101st commencement exercises.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway sought federal approval in February to abandon northern Maine tracks by summer, citing losses of $4 million to $5 million annually. MMA provides the only rail freight service in Aroostook County, serving primarily the pulp and paper, agriculture and potato processing industries.
The tracks targeted for abandonment run from Madawaska to Millinocket, with spurs to Caribou, Easton, Houlton, Limestone and Presque Isle. Nearly two dozen of Maine’s largest manufacturers and growers use those lines for shipping.
The state plans to buy the tracks and lease them to a rail operator that would keep northern Maine’s freight moving, keeping as many as 1,722 people employed.
Those jobs could be lost if the freight lines were abandoned.
Officials from MMA, the Maine Department of Transportation and the federal Surface Transportation Board, which mediates railroad disputes, met privately on April 22 in Washington, D.C., to discuss MMA’s proposed abandonment. Details of the meeting are being kept confidential.
The 15-member Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force met for the first time at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center last Wednesday. The task force will help DOT buy and manage the tracks if voters approve a $7 million bond package in a June referendum.
The task force meeting was attended by DOT Commissioner David Cole, economic development representatives from Aroostook County, business stakeholders in the rail lines, and others from the private sector.
Collins pointed out that officials announced at the four-hour meeting that 20 private entities have expressed interest in operating the railroad.
“That is very important,” said Collins. “The fact that that many people are interested is a good sign. I think that people in the community also understand how important rail is to this region. We have about two dozen companies that rely on rail to ship their products, and if rail is gone, that is going to a get a lot harder and a lot more expensive for them.”
Companies in Maine that use the freight lines include Twin Rivers, formerly Fraser Papers; Irving Woodlands LLC; Louisiana-Pacific Corp.; Old Town Fuel & Fiber; R.H. Foster Energy LLC; and Seven Islands Land Co. Those companies have pressed to save the lines.
The senator also said she supported efforts by the state to apply for federal TIGER 2 funds through the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve track conditions so rail service would be faster and more reliable. The TIGER program was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“I stand ready to endorse that Tiger 2 application,” said Collins. “I also will continue to work at the federal level to secure money.”
“I think that everything is on track, but we have a lot of work left to do,” she continued on Saturday. “It is not going to be easy, but everyone involved in this is working together, so it makes me very optimistic that we are going to have a positive outcome.”