Saving rail line for northern Maine isn’t a done deal

Posted June 10, 2010, at 9:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:54 a.m.

Voter approval of a $47.8 million bond package that includes $7 million to save from abandonment 233 miles of northern Maine freight tracks doesn’t necessarily mean that those tracks will be preserved, a state official said Thursday.

Maine Department of Transportation officials must successfully negotiate with track owner Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway the purchase of the tracks, said Herb Thomson, a DOT spokesman.

“At this point, the discussions are ongoing and we are hoping that the discussions and the work of the governor’s task force will be helpful in our reaching an agreement in the near future,” Thomson said Thursday.

Besides the 15-member Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force, of which Gov. John Baldacci announced the membership on April 26, the federal Surface Transportation Board also must sign off on the deal. The board mediates railroad disputes.

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 with the bond money and other funds and lease the tracks to a rail operator that would keep northern Maine’s freight moving. The tracks’ preservation would help maintain as many as 1,722 jobs that could be lost if the freight lines were abandoned, Aroostook County economic development offi-cials have said.

Several freight railroad services besides MMA have expressed interest in a lease deal, state officials have said.

If the deal were made, the state would use the bond money toward the purchase while rail stakeholders, which include 22 major Maine manufacturers, would commit to $3 million in hauling fees.

The task force is assigned with maintaining transparency in the purchase and crafting the best deal for taxpayers. 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.

Under Surface Transportation Board 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, but the Surface Transportation Board 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 has said.

Track stakeholders have said that the rails’ elimination would devastate their ability to get their products to market, calling the tracks vital to the state’s economy.

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