Railroad on track to reopen part of damaged line after Brownville flooding

Brownville Town Manager Matthew Pineo talks to Brian Doyle of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development during a press conference about flood damage in Brownville on Thursday, June 28, 2012.
Brownville Town Manager Matthew Pineo talks to Brian Doyle of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development during a press conference about flood damage in Brownville on Thursday, June 28, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted June 28, 2012, at 4:05 p.m.
Last modified June 28, 2012, at 8:21 p.m.

BROWNVILLE, Maine – As town leaders announced the reopening of all businesses and almost all town roads devastated by last weekend’s flooding, rail officials said they hoped to reopen part of a damaged railroad line by midnight Thursday to keep a $70 million energy project in Hancock County on schedule.

Speaking at a press conference at Joe’s Repair Shop, which lost most of its flooring to flooding on Saturday, Town Manager Matthew Pineo pointed to the just-finished concrete floor as proof of how Brownville, other municipalities and private and state workers worked very hard and fast to repair the damage.

Maine Department of Transportation workers plan to finish the last of their road reopening work and ditch-digging by 4 p.m. Friday, just in time for the town to welcome its Fourth of July visitors, Pineo said.

“It has been a [situation that] rather renewed faith in mankind,” Pineo said Thursday.

But workers will need about 650 tons of asphalt to repave all the damaged roads, and that work won’t be complete until Aug. 1, Pineo said.

Joe McGonigle isn’t as happy as Pineo just yet. The vice president of sales and marketing at Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. said the railroad needed to reopen enough of the track devastated by the weekend storm by overnight Thursday to allow a special-delivery 64-car train of windmill blades, nacelles and other parts to make it to Township 16 by 8 a.m. Friday.

If that doesn’t happen, McGonigle said, construction of the 19-turbine Bull Hill industrial wind site would suffer a costly delay. The owner of the 1,000 feet of track the storm washed out in 17 places, MM&A hopes to have the track south of Brownville open by 3 a.m. Friday, he said Thursday.

The northern rail route out of Brownville, the primary connector of rail traffic to northern Maine, likely will be repaired by Monday, McGonigle said. If it isn’t, GAC Chemical of Searsport, a manufacturer of chemicals that paper mills use, would run out of supplies.

Similarly, Great Northern Paper Co. LLC of East Millinocket might require the railroad to unload rail cars at the mill by Monday for shipment of paper by truck, McGonigle said. The railroad solved a problem with Imerys Clays Inc., an industrial clay distributor in Searsport, by rerouting traffic from Searsport to Saint John, New Brunswick, via Pan-Am Railways, he said.

“They should be OK,” McGonigle said. “That’s about the worst damage [among the railroad’s customers] that I know of.”

Representatives from the companies McGonigle cited did not return telephone calls Thursday. Officials from Maine Northern Railway, which owns about 240 miles of track north of Millinocket that is the main line through Aroostook County, also did not return messages.

Called one of Maine’s most unusual weather events, the storm that stalled over Brownville overnight Saturday dumped at least 6 inches of rain on an area about 3½ miles in diameter within three or four hours. The storm overwhelmed the town’s flood defenses, washing out roads and the rail line in Brownville.

The flooding contributed to the death of a 29-year-old Milo man early Sunday and total damage and economic recovery estimates have been placed in excess of $4 million, though they are incomplete. The washed-out track effectively isolated northern Maine from southern Maine via railroad.

Wallace K. Hsueh, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, of which Snowe is the ranking member, was among the state and federal representatives who toured local damage spots on Thursday.

Representatives gathered information for a funding appeal that will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In a statement, Snowe urged anyone with flood-related damage to immediately report it to Thomas Caparo at the Piscataquis County Emergency Management Office at 207-564-8660. Reports will help officials assess whether the total damage meets the necessary threshold to qualify for federal assistance. The threshold is about $1.8 million, she said.

Pineo said he hoped that FEMA would help the town but that the town probably could absorb the entire damage-repair cost, albeit painfully. He said the town has a healthy paving account that would be depleted by the emergency.

If the town had to pay for all of its damage, town leaders would face difficult choices. The damage costs could force taxes to be raised by about 5 mills, up from the 16 to 16½ mill rate the town usually carries, or the town could use its paving fund. The repair bill would equal about a third of the town’s budget, Pineo said.

“We have been saving in our paving fund for four or five years so we do have the money to take care of this,” he said. “Unfortunately we will have to use it for this in a time of need. The cash is there. Fortunately, our town is financially secure.”

According to Thursday’s damage estimates, the Maine Department of Transportation has spent $250,000 to $300,000 on road repairs. About $259,000 in damage occurred in Brownville, Pineo said.

Sebec took $10,000 to $15,000 in damage; Piscataquis County, $11,000; and Milo, $113,800, officials said. Damage estimates for Penobscot County and Patten were not available on Thursday.

The flooding has cost Montreal, Maine & Atlantic customers about $500,000 a day since Sunday, plus another $500,000 in total from the railroad for the repair of the tracks, according to CEO Robert Grindrod.

Brownville has received a lot of help that has defrayed costs. Pineo said 17 municipalities from as far away as Portland volunteered workers and equipment, including police services, to Brownville. The more than 50 Maine Department of Transportation workers assigned to Brownville since Sunday got free breakfast and lunch at Katahdin Christian Church of Brownville.

“That is how this has all been made possible,” said Pineo, who so far has worked 96 hours this week, he said. “Our small Public Works Department could have never achieved this in the five days’ time that we are at.”

Town and federal officials have said that their next challenge is to get the FEMA paperwork filed as soon as possible. Similarly, MM&A wants to repair its damaged line as fast as its workers can, McGonigle said.

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