GUEST COLUMN

Maine’s $21 million subsidy for the port of Saint John?

Posted June 07, 2011, at 6:31 p.m.

In 1905, an historic connection was established when the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad (B&A) fulfilled the vision of connecting Aroostook County with the deep-water commercial docks at Searsport. This corridor forms the backbone of rail service through the heartland of Maine, and for more than 100 years it has carried internationally bound cargoes both to and from northern Maine through the port of Searsport.

The significance of this link has been repeatedly recognized by the Maine Department of Transportation, most recently in the “Statewide Transportation Plan 2008-2030,” and in the 2009 document “Moving People and Goods: The Governor’s Rail and Port Investment Plan,” which describes the route as “the most important north/south logistical link in this region of northern Maine.”

Around 1998, the state paid the B&A Railroad $6 million to purchase and then tear down a derelict wooden freight dock in Searsport, subsequently replacing it with a $19 million rail-serviced dry cargo pier. According to the Baldacci administration, this effort was undertaken to serve the “international transportation needs” of northern Maine, including Penobscot and Aroostook counties, according to an article in the June 26,2006 Bangor Daily News.

Last year, the taxpayers of Maine became the owners of 233 miles of the aforementioned route, stretching from Millinocket to Aroostook County, when the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad filed for abandonment of the line. This left 20 or more northern Maine businesses potentially stranded without future rail service, and the state purchased the money-losing line for the sum of $21 million.

A new operator has been chosen to offer service on this state-owned rail line, the Eastern Maine Railway Corp. (EMR), which is a division of the New Brunswick Southern Railway (NBSR), which is itself a subsidiary of the J.D. Irving family of companies. NBSR’s terminus is the Canadian port of Saint John, where Irving has a refinery, a fleet of tugboats and access to deep-water docks.

Legislators, taxpayers and the many transportation workers who rely on the port of Searsport for their livelihood should be concerned about the implications of the proposed operating agreement.   The new arrangement may fundamentally change the rail corridor away from its historic terminus in the port of Searsport, shifting it instead eastward into Canada and the port of Saint John.

The agreement between the Maine Department of Transportation and Eastern Maine Railway potentially expands the hinterland of the port of Saint John by more than 200 miles, at the expense of Searsport, and with the capital costs for doing so being borne by Maine taxpayers.

This potential shift to Canada is especially disconcerting when considering the short history of the new bulk dock in Searsport, which was ostensibly constructed to serve this very hinterland. In 2010, a total of 10 ships called there; so far in 2011, there have been two. Not one ton of forest products from northern Maine have moved across this dock in several years. By any standard, this publicly funded facility is grossly underused.

Between the $25 million spent to construct the bulk dock in Searsport and the $21 million spent on the northern Maine railroad, the best “return” on these investments made by Maine’s taxpayers would be to strengthen the connection between these two valuable state-funded transportation assets, not to segregate them. Where a northern Maine shipper could formerly access the port of Searsport using one railroad, they will now need to ship over two. By contrast, Saint John can now be accessed using only one railroad, where formerly it took two. It is essential that the Maine Legislature and the current administration be proactive in ensuring that MMA and EMR will work cooperatively to offer timely and cost-effective service over the north-south rail link to the port of Searsport.

Maine taxpayers have spent tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects that have benefited the railroads; it is entirely appropriate that they should expect those investments to yield the maximum benefit to the state as a whole. I urge elected officials, especially members of the Transportation Committee or those who serve from affected counties, to closely monitor these negotiations, and to work to ensure that this rail purchase does not become a $21 million subsidy for the port of Saint John.

David Gelinas is president of the Searsport/Bucksport Chapter of the Propeller Club of the United States. He is employed as a harbor pilot and docking master on the waters of Penobscot Bay and River. He may be reached at pilots@penbaypilots.com.

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