PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — An effort to preserve 233 miles of rail line in Aroostook and northern Penobscot counties got a major boost Friday when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced its $10.5 million grant to the Maine Department of Transportation to repair and improve the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway line in those two counties.
The funding comes from the second round of grants from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud on Friday morning to inform them of the DOT’s decision.
“I am so excited right now,” Collins said in a telephone interview Friday morning. “This is fabulous news, particularly for the businesses in Aroostook and northern Penobscot that depend on rail service.”
The funding will be used to replace railroad ties and rail sections and to clear drainage ditches to restore the rail routes serving northern Maine. The state is negotiating with MMA to acquire 233 miles of the rail line, after MMA sought federal approval in February to abandon the northern Maine lines. The company cited losses of between $4 million and $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, including 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.
The state has expressed a desire to buy the tracks and lease them to a rail operator to keep northern Maine’s freight moving. In June, Maine voters approved a $7 million bond package to purchase the rail lines, and the state sought the federal money to repair broken and damaged sections of the track.
All of the companies that use the lines have pressed hard to keep them in service. Travis Turner, Louisiana-Pacific plant manager, represents businesses that use the rail line. He has pointed out several times in testimony before state and federal officials that four truckloads of product can fit on one rail car. Louisiana-Pacific sends approximately 50 percent of its outgoing shipments by rail.
Snowe, Collins and Michaud have advocated actively at the federal level to preserve the rail line.
Collins wrote a letter to LaHood in support of the TIGER funding, telling LaHood that without effective rail service Aroostook County’s unemployment rate would only worsen. Northern Maine Development Commission, an economic development entity that advocates on behalf of Aroostook County, estimated that as many as 1,726 direct and indirect jobs are tied to the area’s rail line. Collins pointed to that figure in her letter to LaHood.
“I stayed in close touch with [LaHood] throughout this process,” Collins said. “It was a difficult process to secure this money because there were so many competitive applications for such limited funding. But I think that the secretary recognized that this rail line is a lifeline for Aroostook and northern Penobscot.”
Snowe also offered support for the grant in a letter to LaHood that she penned in August. She said the grant “will make great strides towards ensuring the economic competitiveness of this vital region in Maine.”
“An effective rail transportation system in northern Maine is crucial for the companies and communities along the 241 miles of the rail corridor and the overall economic vitality and health of the entire state,” she said in a written statement Friday.
Michaud, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he had just spoken to LaHood and the White House earlier this week to advocate for the funding. He, along with Snowe and Collins, also has met with stakeholders and DOT officials regarding the issue during the past year.
“It’s terrific news that this investment has been approved,” he said Friday.
Gov. John Baldacci also praised the investment in the rail system.
“Rail is the most economical, most cost-effective and environmentally sound way to move wood and finished forest products to market,” Baldacci said. “Ensuring the viability of the rail is essential to the economy of Maine, and that is why the congressional delegation, Maine Legislature and my administration have been working together to save this economic lifeline.”
During a meeting in Presque Isle in July, MMA officials told the federal Surface Transportation Board, which mediates railroad disputes, it would take between $18 million and $19 million to upgrade the tracks appropriately. They said that insufficient maintenance over the years by MMA’s predecessor has played into their financial difficulties.
DOT Commissioner David Cole said Friday he was “very excited” about the news. He said that negotiations with MMA are “going well.”
“We are making good progress, and we hope to have an agreement soon,” he said. “I have to credit our federal delegation and the members of the Aroostook Rail Advisory Taskforce for all of their work. Certainly, our work is not over, but I am optimistic. This grant is going to help us increase the rail speed and reliability, and it is certainly good for negotiations that both the state and the federal government have stepped up with a financial commitment.”
Collins also said the TIGER grant and the bond package will “further negotiations.”
In concert with the efforts of Northern Maine Development Commission, Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development, a Caribou-based nonprofit that fosters and encourages the balanced development of Aroostook County, has advocated for keeping rail in the county. Virginia Joles, president of LEAD, said Friday the organization is “super pleased” to hear news of the TIGER II funding.
“We are really glad it is coming here,” she said. “Rail service is essential to economic development here. We just have to have it.”