State officials and members of Maine’s congressional delegation were applauding a decision made by the Federal Railroad Administration on Thursday that will allow the state to take ownership of 233 miles of rail line in northern Maine.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, made the announcement Thursday, saying that the FRA had cleared all of the legal hurdles that had prevented the state from stepping in to secure and rehabilitate Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railway track to preserve rail service for close to two dozen employers.
MMA sought federal approval last February to abandon northern Maine tracks, 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 ran 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 Louisiana-Pacific Corp. and Irving Woodlands.
The state quickly drafted a plan 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. The rails are used to haul lumber, paper products, logs and wood chips.
Last June, voters approved a bond package that contains $7 million to save the tracks.
Mark Latti, public information officer for the Maine Department of Transportation, said Thursday evening that the sale of the rail lines would be complete pending the recording of deeds, which will be completed Friday morning.
The state will pay $19.1 million for the rails, according to Latti. The federal government chipped in $10.5 million for track upgrades.
“We have put out request for proposals to find an operator for the lines,” he added. “We have already received numerous inquiries. The deadline is at the end of January. We will then select an operator. The process should go smoothly and shouldn’t take too long.”
Latti said that the $10.5 million federal grant will be used to make improvements to the tracks.
“Basically, it will be a lot of deferred maintenance,” he said. “We’ll be replacing the rails and some ties and doing other surface work, along with putting down some gravel.”
Collins was excited to hear the news.
“As an Aroostook County native, I understand how important the continued operation of this rail line is to Maine’s economy,” she said in a written statement. “Today’s news allows the state to take clear ownership of this portion of track, rehabilitate it, and improve it in order to preserve rail service for nearly two dozen employers in Aroostook and Penobscot counties. This will help prevent the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs which are dependent upon rail service.
“Today’s decision by FRA clears the way for the State to take over this rail line, so we can begin the important work of upgrading and rehabilitating the tracks to preserve and improve rail service for northern Maine,” Collins added
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, also have been heavily involved in advocating to keep the rail line operating. Both were pleased to hear that the state could take ownership of the line.
“The rail line provides critical stability to a region that relies on the rail corridor for its economic competitiveness,” said Snowe. “Over the past several months, I have worked closely with all stakeholders to ensure that an effective rail transportation system remains in Northern Maine — for the local companies and communities along the track, and for the economic vitality and health of the entire state. Had this crucial line been shut down, far too many jobs would have been threatened when our state and nation should be focused like a laser on creating new jobs during these challenging times.”
“This action, combined with the resources made available by the state and the federal government, will help ensure the rail line’s long term viability,” Michaud said. “It’s been a long road, but it’s crucial that this rail line is preserved. There are too many businesses and jobs that rely on this line not to get this done.”
Robert Clark, the executive director of the Northern Maine Development Commission, said that board members with the organization that works to promote economic development in the region were “very pleased” with the news.
“It is certainly a great decision for Aroostook County, particularly for businesses that use the line,” he said. “Hopefully the new operator will bring in news business as well.’
Latti said that state officials are now poised to move forward.
“We are very pleased that rail will be available to continue to provide service to more than two dozen businesses,” he said Thursday.