The Westbrook-based firm is conducting a wide range of research to determine both the capacity the state's system already has and what is possible in the future. Despite all the data crunching, representatives from HNTB insisted that public input is a crucial stage of the process.
HNTB intends to present a draft of its plan, which is required by federal rules if the state is to be eligible for federal rail funding, by December.
"We want to do something more than meet a federal requirement," said Nathan Moulton of the Maine Department of Transportation's Office of Freight Transport. "We want to put together a strategic plan for the future.
After more than two hours of public testimony, it became clear that attendees favored strengthening what one person called the "weak link" of transportation in Maine.
"We've got a pretty good road system," said Dave Milan, economic development director for the town of Bucksport. "We've got a pretty good port system. Our weak link is our rail system."
Milan said that in years of trying to bring economic development to Maine, he hears over and over again that the rail system here isn't adequate.
Fraser Papers is an example of how a business can support thousands of jobs and millions of dollars' worth of commerce with the help of rail, said Arkon Horne, the controller for Fraser Timber Unlimited in Ashland. Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., which owns the lines that serve the paper company, has said it is in the process of discontinuing service for economic reasons along 241 miles of lines used by Fraser.
"We compete with others who have reliable freight rail service," said Horne. "If we were to switch to truck traffic, we would lose our competitiveness nationwide. We sell most of our product outside Maine."
The 241 miles of track that run from Madawaska to Millinocket are about half of what Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc. owns in Maine. The tracks are used by freight trains to transport such products as pulpwood, heating fuels, wood chips and cooking oil. But the railroad company says the tracks are no longer profitable enough to maintain and it wants to abandon them or sell them to the state. The tracks and land are worth about $17 million. Upgrading the tracks would cost an estimated $6 million, and the annual maintenance fee would be about $2.5 million.
Horne suggested to HNTB officials that they prioritize the state's resources for rail projects starting with economic need, followed by which projects would relieve trucking pressure on Maine roads. Horne estimated that it would take 4,600 trucks to haul the lumber carried by rail from Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc. in a year. And that doesn't include transporting pulp or paper.
"All the good people we employ and all the people in the pulp and paper industry would be impacted by this," said Horne.
William J. DeWitt III, an associate dean at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, said Fraser and countless other Maine businesses could enjoy rail service, but that first there needs to be a critical mass of business to make rail service dependable and affordable. He urged planners to pursue "overhead" train runs that ship goods through Maine, not necessarily to Maine.
Two similar forums are scheduled shortly. HNTB officials said there would be another round of hearings in November or December after the draft rail plan is complete.