BELFAST, Maine — The city has notified the Brooks Preservation Society, operator of an excursion railroad on the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad line, that it does not intend to renew the nonprofit group’s lease, which expires Dec. 1.
The city owns the 3-mile portion of the 33-mile-long right of way that lies within Belfast, which is the end of the line.
City Manager Joe Slocum told city councilors earlier this month that under the terms of the lease, the city had to notify the preservation society of its intent by Nov. 1. If it failed to do so, the one-year lease would automatically renew for another year.
The city has been working for several years to establish a pedestrian path on the railroad right of way. Though state funding for the project has been secured, Gov. Paul LePage’s recent decision to push back the selling of bonds until next year has affected the city’s plans to build the walkway.
No time has been set for construction to begin, Jennika Lundy, assistant to the city manager said Tuesday.
Slocum plans to meet with representatives of the preservation society next week to discuss terms of a new lease. Lundy said a new lease might take the form of a month-to-month arrangement, giving the city flexibility should it be possible to begin construction on short notice.
Joe Feero, president of the Brooks Preservation Society, said the move did not surprise him.
“I understand it,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not a shock to me.”
The group wants to keep operating trains along the stretch from the harbor northwest along the Passagassawakeag River because “that’s the most scenic part of our ride,” Feero said. But his group will not fight the city on the lease change.
“The goal for us has always been to work with the city,” he said.
At the same time, he said the railroad wants to run along the river for as long as it can, since the trail work has not been scheduled.
This summer, the railroad ran excursion trips on weekends from the old upper bridge area on High Street north of downtown Belfast.
Feero calculates the railroad carried 6,755 passengers this year, up from 2,255 last year. Included in this year’s count are 30 bus tours that each brought about 50 people to the city to ride the train. The total number also includes 3,000 people carried to the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.
Feero cited a study that shows the railroad contributes about $1 million annually to the local economy.
Mack Page, a former employee of the B&ML Railroad who in recent years built a siding at the City Point part of Belfast where rail cars and engines are stored, is working with the preservation society, he said Tuesday. Page said he and the preservation society have discussed having the excursions leave from his siding area when the pathway is built.
The city must initiate the process of railbanking before removing rails and ties and building a pathway. That process is undertaken through a provision of federal law, seeking approval from the Surface Transportation Board.
Foliage trips are planned for Oct. 13-14, which run from the upper bridge station to Waldo and back. On Oct. 20, a special run is scheduled from the upper bridge station in Belfast to Brooks and back, with a stop at Brooks Station, where hot cider and snacks will be served.
And on Oct 27, the Toys for Tots group is collaborating with the railroad. Anyone bringing a toy to donate rides free. Trains leave at 9:30 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. from City Point.