"The federal government can't put the first dollars into this deal, but we can be the final dollars in the deal," Szabo said. "The bottom line is that there is both the intelligence and the interest in putting the right package together in this room. We are willing to be part of that."
Szabo's support - and statements from the people with a stake in the railroad who attended the meeting - should make passage of a proposed $85 million bond package more likely, said Gov. John Baldacci, who chaired the session. The package contains $17 million to buy the threatened Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway lines. The proposal is stalled in the Legislature. Lawmakers are expected to revisit the issue April 12.
"It's very apparent that we have a vast economic need here" for the rail lines, Baldacci said. "Let's work together to come up with the right way to ensure that the best interests of the state of Maine are fulfilled."
Baldacci said that he and state Transportation Commissioner David Cole would meet to form a smaller group of stakeholders to begin fleshing out the partnership.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who helped arrange Szabo's visit, pledged to help save the rail lines. Both belong to congressional transportation committees. "The public-private partnership is the key element to this," Collins said.
MMA officials sought federal approval in February to abandon the tracks, most of which run from Madawaska to Millinocket, by summer. The company, which is based in Hermon, has been losing $4 million to $5 million a year on the lines due to the recession and housing industry collapse. Railroad officials and a virtual who's who of Maine industry impressed upon Szabo the need for the rail lines.
People attending the meeting included leaders from Fraser Papers, Irving Woodlands LLC, Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., Old Town Fuel & Fiber, R.H. Foster Energy LLC, and Seven Islands Land Co. All agreed that a northern Maine without rail lines is inconceivable.
The lines serve about five million acres of forest, 90 percent of which is harvested by the state forest products industry, said Denis Berube, director of transportation and planning services at the Northern Maine Development Commission. Much of that product would be stranded, and as many as 166,000 jobs could be lost immediately, if the rail line goes down, Berube said.
A state Department of Transportation-commissioned study shows that abandoning the freight lines would put another 36,000 18-wheel trucks on Maine roads. This would cause another 200 accidents annually while adding as much as $3.5 million a year to DOT maintenance costs, Berube said. Another 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel would be expended annually if the rail service stopped, Berube said, and Maine manufacturers would likely absorb those costs - with diesel fuel costs starting to top $3.15 per gallon.
Seven Islands President John H. Cashwell III, whose company manages nearly a million acres of forestland, said his company restarted a sawmill because its managers expect that the housing market will shortly start rebounding. That restart, and many other jobs, will be lost if the rail goes down, Cashwell said.
Lawmakers will return April 12 to the State House for at least one more vote on bonds as Democrats make a final push to get support for an $85 million package of borrowing. After passing the House by one vote, Senate Republicans held firm and the measure fell four votes short Wednesday of the supermajority needed for passage.
Rather then let the bill die, Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, tabled the bill just before 11 p.m. to give it one more chance.