BRUNSWICK, Maine — Opponents of a proposed layover facility for Amtrak passenger rail trains in Brunswick came out in force Thursday night for a public hearing on the project’s environmental impact.
Before the hearing began, Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, took the more than 60 attendees through the bullet points about the facility’s necessity.
“The purpose is to construct an indoor layover facility where we can store and provide routine servicing for Amtrak Downeaster train sets,” Quinn said. “The facility will allow train equipment to power down inside during the middle of the day. It will reduce fuel consumption, noise, emissions and so forth associated with trains which currently idle outside during the day.”
She added that the facility will also eliminate the need for the trains to take late-night and early-morning trips between Portland and Brunswick.
But at the center of the public hearing was Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s draft environmental assessment. The document will allow the Federal Railroad Authority to determine if extra analysis of the project’s potential impact is needed.
A majority of the 26 speakers at the town’s meeting room at Brunswick Station challenged an environmental assessment that shows the Amtrak Downeaster depot would not adversely impact an abutting neighborhood.
Most of the speakers, many of whom are associated with the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, urged rail officials to conduct a more comprehensive analysis and suggested considering alternative sites to the proposed rail yard area between Church Road and Stanwood Street.
“It’s important to know that by law, the environmental assessment must adequately address 23 specific items such as air quality, water quality and socioeconomic impacts,” said Chris Casey of Bouchard Drive, a member of the neighborhood group. “By any proof of measure, the environmental assessment fails to meet those standards.”
The project also had some vocal proponents, including Town Councilor Margo Knight, Debora King of the Brunswick Downtown Association and longtime advocate of the train service, Wayne Davis.
“In my opinion, I think [the Downeaster's operator] has done due diligence in finding the best space available [for the facility],” Knight said, “and also in doing as much mitigation as possible.”
“The environmental assessment shows conclusively, even repeatedly, that the effects — environmental and other — fall well within public guidelines,” Jeff Reynolds of Redwood Lane said.
As part of a larger 30-day public comment process, the comments made Thursday night were entered into Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s and Federal Railroad Authority’s records. The process is required by the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act because the project is using federal funds.
Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is still accepting public comment by email to Marina@nnepra.com or by mail to Marina Douglass, NNEPRA, 75 West Commercial St., Suite 104, Portland, ME 04101.
After the public comment period ends Oct. 13, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and Federal Railroad Authority will review and provide responses to “substantive comments.” They will be included in the final draft of the environmental assessment, according to the public hearing moderator, Erich Thalheimer of engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.
If the Federal Railroad Authority determines additional analysis is required, it could delay the construction of the train facility and require Downeaster trains to continue to idle up to five hours a day.
The environmental assessment serves to “provide sufficient evidence and analysis” to determine if additional investigation on the project’s environmental impact is necessary, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website.
The assessment also serves to help authorities like Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, a law passed in 1969 that seeks to balance “the desire for a sustainable environment” with “other essential needs of present and future generations of Americans.”