PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As the state has not yet negotiated a deal to purchase the tracks, the federal Surface Transportation Board will hold a public hearing in Presque Isle on Wednesday to allow interested parties to comment on Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s application to abandon the 233 miles of tracks that run through Aroostook and Penobscot counties.
The hearing will begin at 9 a.m. at the District Court on Riverside Drive.
MMA 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 Surface Transportation Board, which mediates railroad disputes, met privately April 22 in Washington, D.C., to discuss MMA’s proposed abandonment. Details of the meeting are being kept confidential.
In June, voters approved a bond package that contains $7 million to save the tracks. Despite the vote, the Maine DOT has not yet successfully negotiated with track owner MMA to purchase the tracks.
A number of speakers will address the board at Wednesday’s hearing, including U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, along with representatives from the Maine DOT, MMA, business leaders and economic development officials. Shippers who use the railroad, including representatives from Twin Rivers Paper Co., Irving Woodlands and Louisiana Pacific Corp., also will speak.