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Szabo boosts public-private partnerships for MMA line

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The federal government could be the last to invest in plans to save 241 miles of northern Maine rail lines, but it won't be the first, the Bangor Daily News reports. Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, told representatives of 22 northern Maine manufacturers during a meeting April 8 that they must form a public-private partnership with the state and contribute money or other aid to acquire federal funding to save the rail lines.

"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.

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