PORTLAND, Maine — Maine will receive federal funding for more than half of a project to upgrade railroad lines, which the state’s top transportation official said will make it easier to ship goods to and from the state.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins announced Monday that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded the Maine Regional Railways Project $20 million to rehabilitate 384 miles of track, reducing bottlenecks caused by speed limits on certain parts of track by summer 2017, according to the grant application.
Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s Office of Freight and Business Services, said Monday that the improvements to rail lines and rail yards in Waterville and destinations north stand to increase traffic flow and particularly benefit the state’s forest product industry.
“A lot of these yards were designed 100 years ago, and they don’t really fit with modern operations,” Moulton said. “It’s not to say that no work has happened since then, but we’re going to redesign these yards and upgrade them to modern standards.”
The project’s proposed improvements would increase allowable speeds on portions of track from Millinocket to Searsport, Vanceboro to Brownville Junction and Northern Maine Junction to Waterville. It also would make improvements to several rail yards, which Maine transportation officials said in the application “will further allow Maine industries to compete effectively both nationally and internationally.”
The application notes that Maine is one of three states without a major railroad, or Class I railroad, and that rail investment has flagged with the decline of the state’s paper industry.
“Combined with a light density of industry and customer base and a large geography, the railroads in Maine need this financial lift to create the kind of investment required to return the railroads to speeds they enjoyed in the past when the paper industry was more robust and mill closures were not an unfortunate and too frequent occurrence,” the application stated.
Moulton said the improvements likely won’t attract a Class I railroad operation to the state but will help integrate the “kind of splintered system” operated by four separate railroads “to have it act more like a single system, or a Class I, where it operates without as many holdups or impediments along the lines.”
The DOT said the total project would cost $37.3 million, with the portion not funded by the grant to come from the state and four railways.
Moulton said he thought the public-private nature of the project application was critical to Maine winning its bid for the grant.
The DOT had initially asked for $22.4 million. Moulton said the state and railroads would meet to figure out how to make up the about $2.4 million difference from the actual award.
The money comes through the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, fund. With the latest grant, Collins said the state has received $110 million from the federal program for highway, bridge, port and rail projects.
“This rehabilitation of our state’s vital transportation infrastructure will bolster economic development, create good-paying jobs and provide increased public safety for communities across our state,” Collins said in a prepared statement.
David Bernhardt, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said the grant “is crucial, as it will improve the accessibility and long-term prospects for the economy of the state through freight rail by allowing the improved movement of goods both in and out of Maine.”