CARIBOU, Maine — Members of a governor’s task force created to stop the abandonment of 233 miles of northern Maine freight tracks expressed optimism in a meeting Wednesday about the chances of keeping trains running on the tracks.
Officials announced at the four-hour meeting that 20 private entities have expressed interest in operating the railroad, but little else new was revealed, as the bulk of the session took place in executive session.
The 15-member Aroostook Rail Advisory Task Force met for the first time at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center. The meeting included a time for public comment before the group went into executive session, but only three individuals testified.
Those present at the meeting said they did not expect to see a large crowd due to the timing of the hearing and the broad-based representation on the task force.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway sought federal approval in February to abandon northern Maine tracks by summer, citing losses of $4 million to $5 million annually. MMA provides the only rail freight service in Aroostook County, serving primarily the pulp and paper, agriculture and potato processing industries.
The tracks targeted for abandonment run from Madawaska to Millinocket, with spurs to Caribou, Easton, Houlton, Limestone and Presque Isle. Nearly two dozen of Maine’s largest manufacturers and growers use those lines for shipping.
The state plans to buy the tracks and lease them to a rail operator that would keep northern Maine’s freight moving, keeping as many as 1,722 people employed.
Those jobs could be lost if the freight lines were abandoned.
Officials from MMA, the Maine Department of Transportation and the federal Surface Transportation Board, which mediates railroad disputes, met privately on April 22 in Washington, D.C., to discuss MMA’s proposed abandonment. Details of the meeting are being kept confidential.
The task force will help DOT buy and manage the tracks if voters approve a $7 million bond package in a June referendum.
Tuesday’s meeting was attended by DOT Commissioner David Cole, economic development representatives from Aroostook County, business stakeholders in the rail lines, and others from the private sector.
Representatives from the state’s congressional delegation also were present.
Those who testified mainly spoke about how some major manufacturers and workers in the state would be devastated if the rail lines were abandoned. Members of the public as well as task force members pointed out that the railway employees many Aroostook County workers and serves as a cost-effective shipping resource for companies and as a resource for companies that ship products that don’t fit on tractor-trailers.
Companies in Maine that use the freight lines include Twin Rivers (formerly Fraser Papers), Irving Woodlands LLC, Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Old Town Fuel & Fiber, R.H. Foster Energy LLC and Seven Islands Land Co. Those compa-nies have pressed to save the lines.
Task force member Travis Turner, Louisiana-Pacific plant manager, represents businesses that use the rail line. He has pointed out that four truckloads of product can fit on one rail car. Louisiana Pacific sends approximately 50 percent of its outgoing shipments by rail. Trains travel the line two or three times a week, according to MMA officials.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was happy with what he heard during the public portion of the meeting.
“Everyone in there is 100 percent committed to keeping rail in Aroostook County,” he said. “Twenty people have expressed interest in operating the rail service, and that is awesome to me. That means there are people out there who think they can operate the railroad for a profit. I am very encouraged.”
Both Jackson and Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, stressed that some people are under the mistaken belief that if the railroad lines are pulled up, the land that once held the tracks can be used by ATV riders and snowmobilers.
“That is a big misconception,” said Martin. “The reality is that when the railroad was put in, contracts were signed with landowners. They state that if the railroad lines were ever pulled up, the land would revert back to their original owners or their heirs. So the belief that snowmobilers are just going to be able to use the aban-doned lines is not true.”
He also was encouraged by what he heard Wednesday.
“We need the railroad,” Martin said. “If it disappears here, it is never coming back.”
Jim Bennett, city manager of Presque Isle, said he felt that everyone who attended the meeting realized how important rail service is to The County.
“This isn’t just about rail, it is about the region’s future,” he said. “What I heard here was a good start.”
Cole said he is also optimistic about the future of rail in The County.
“We have to make this work,” he said. “I am not saying it is going to be easy, but we have got a decent shot at putting a deal together that is reasonable.”
Cole said he could not discuss the ongoing mediation with the railroad. During the executive session, he said, the group would discuss the condition of the existing track, potential third-party operators and other matters, but could give no details. He said discussion also would center on finding money to improve track conditions, so that rail service would be faster and more reliable.
The state could apply for federal TIGER 2 funds for that purpose through the U.S. Department of Transportation, he said. The TIGER program was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Cole said he expected the group would continue meeting throughout the summer.