Maine rail task force holds its first meeting in Caribou

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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, the Bangor Daily News reports. Officials said 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 companies 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 abandoned 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.

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