PORTLAND, Maine — For the first time in more than a year, operators of the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service met with an advisory group on Tuesday to discuss the layover and maintenance facility planned in Brunswick.
Construction of the $12 million project is tentatively scheduled to start in November, pending an environmental review by the U.S. Federal Rail Administration that is expected to be completed within the next two months.
There were times of tension during the two-hour meeting held at the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority headquarters on Commercial Street, when members of a neighborhood group questioned claims and demanded more information from rail officials.
But members of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition and rail officials also expressed a desire to continue working together.
“This recent meeting here was a coming together in my opinion,” Dan Sullivan, chairman of BWNC, said after asking NNEPRA to respond more promptly to his group’s Freedom of Access Act requests. “The previous advisory group meetings, I felt like I wasted my time there. … What we’re mostly interested in is hearing how the building is going to bring activity to our space.”
The BWNC is mostly concerned about possible noise and air pollution that will come from the facility proposed for the area between Church Road and Stanwood Street in Brunswick.
Downeaster trains now idle next to the neighborhood for up to five hours around noon before taking passengers south to Portland.
BWNC is not convinced an enclosed layover facility will completely mitigate noise and air quality issues. One of the group’s concerns about the facility is that it won’t treat diesel exhaust fumes.
The group has opposed the Church-Stanwood site since it was chosen by NNEPRA in early 2011. Its opposition triggered a series of public hearings and a report that considered alternative sites in Brunswick.
In the end, NNEPRA stayed with the Church-Stanwood property.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA, said the advisory group was formed two years ago “to keep interested parties up to date with the project as it went forward.”
It includes officials from NNEPRA, Amtrak and the Maine Department of Transportation. It also includes a representative from Parson Brickerhoff, the firm that worked on the siting report; three members of BWNC; Brunswick Planning Director Anna Breinich, and Town Councilor John Perreault.
Quinn said Tuesday’s meeting was held because site and building plans designed by contractor Consigli Construction have progressed enough to be shared with neighbors. The plans presented were also ones that are currently being reviewed by federal rail officials for the project’s Environmental Assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
A public hearing on the Environmental Assessment is expected to be held this summer, and based on the FRA’s findings it could either change or keep the project on its course.
To better get an idea of how the facility will affect the neighborhood, NNEPRA produced an operations report for the group at Tuesday’s meeting that outlines how trains will enter and leave the facility in a minute-by-minute breakdown.
After BWNC members criticized NNEPRA for not including every single aspect of the facility’s operations that could cause noise, Quinn said the rail authority will produce a more thorough report that delves deeper into the exact actions every train makes while entering and leaving the facility.
“When I go back to my neighbors, I need to tell them what they’re concerned about,” Sullivan said. “They’re going to be concerned about the air quality and the noise.”
Fred Fournier, an official with Amtrak, said the biggest noise issue the neighborhood will have to deal with once the facility is constructed will be train whistles that must sound at nearby crossings.
Brunswick previously had quiet zones at most of its rail crossings, but two of them were revoked after Pan Am Railways determined the volume of train traffic was too high.
Fournier said there are ways for the town to improve its quiet zone eligibility if it decides to work on projects that would mitigate safety concerns associated with trains not sounding their whistles near crossings.
Quinn said the advisory group will meet again by the end of the month.