Much has been made of the state’s proposed $20.1 million purchase of 233 miles of northern Maine freight rail tracks — and rightly so. The stakes are high for Maine’s taxpayers, local businesses and residents because getting this rescue right is vital for the economic health of the region.
While we applaud the state’s bold move to prevent Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s abandonment of the line, the lack of disclosure about the specifics of the deal are concerning.
The following questions remain unanswered: Who will be allowed to bid for the operations contract? What is the MMA being promised? How will current and potential future rail customers be served?
Amid all these questions, the state and MMA have asked Twin Rivers Paper Co. to withdraw its objections to the MMA abandonment filed with the Federal Surface Transportation Board in order to accelerate the state purchase. If all parties agreed to this request, the STB would expedite consideration without stopping to review key details.
This is a request we will not grant, because accelerating the closure of a deal that has so many unanswered questions is in no one’s best interest.
We expected that the Federal Surface Transportation Board would thoroughly and transparently vet the transaction. For unexplained reasons, this apparently is not going to happen.
We accept that our decision to demand transparency will be controversial, but on Friday we informed the state that, until we are given an opportunity to view the details of the deal, we will not withdraw our objection to the abandonment.
Let us be clear. We support the rescue of the rail line, but it is incomprehensible for Maine to spend $20 million of public money with zero transparency into the process, terms and desired outcomes for rail customers and the taxpayers at large.
It is well-known that Twin Rivers is battling with MMA to secure cost-effective, reliable rail service from our Madawaska plant. The state’s rail, if accessible to Twin Rivers, may in the future provide important rail options to our plant and, by extension, help secure our long-term sustainability. However, we need assurances that the rail will be operated under the principles of capitalism, not backroom deal making.
We are asking that our elected leaders not be swayed by artificial haste to close this deal, but to take time to review its details and to offer the public and the affected parties the courtesy of doing the same.
It is vital that Maine’s leaders take the time to get this right.
Jeff Dutton is CEO of Twin Rivers Paper Co.