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Forum: Rail plan must help businesses

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At the public's first opportunity to weigh in on the immediate future of Maine railroads, the message was clear: Make them work for Maine businesses, the Bangor Daily News reports. About 25 people from railroads, economic development groups and government agencies gathered in Bangor to discuss the development of the Maine Rail Plan. The state has hired consulting firm HNTB Corp. to formulate a blueprint for improving rail access in Maine, for both freight and passengers.

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.

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