A hearing in Aroostook on the future of rail access

14 years ago

mike_michaudBy U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud

A report recently released by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials analyzed our nation’s freight system. The report found that if we do not maintain, much less improve, our nation’s system of moving freight, millions of jobs and our nation’s long-term economic health would be put at risk. Unfortunately, we have a potential economic crisis brewing right here in Maine on this very topic.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) is seeking to abandon its tracks that run throughout Penobscot and Aroostook counties. This abandonment was filed with a federal entity called the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which is an economic regulatory agency that Congress charged with the mission of resolving railroad rate and service disputes.

Back in October of 2009, I met with House Transportation Committee Chairman Oberstar, representatives from the STB and Federal Railroad Administration and a group of Maine businesses and organizations that rely on rail service in order to discuss the effects that abandonment would have on the region. At the time, we recognized that it would take everyone working together to keep rail service operational.

And it is crucial for our economy that we do: 750 to 1,000 direct jobs are at risk and more than 700 indirect jobs could be lost if these lines are abandoned. There are 21 businesses that currently ship by rail that would be forced to find another, more expensive solution to bring their products to market. According to one analysis, more than 70,000 trucks would be added to Maine’s roads.

Since that initial meeting in 2009, I’ve worked closely with the STB and Federal Railroad Administration to ensure that there was a fair, transparent process in which all parties had an opportunity to be heard. I worked to secure a hearing in Presque Isle so that the STB Chairman, the board and his staff could get out of Washington and up to Aroostook County in order to see and hear firsthand how this abandonment would affect the region’s economy.

At the hearing, which was held on July 7th in the Presque Isle District Court House, I joined representatives of the Maine Department of Transportation, economic development and community leaders, Fraser Timber, Portage Wood Products, Irving Woodlands, Louisiana Pacific, Huber Engineered Woods and staff from the offices of Sens. Snowe and Collins to press our case for preserving rail service. And as I looked around me during the hearing, I saw a lot of individuals that I’ve had the privilege of working with on the long-term economic development of this part of our great state. Unfortunately, all of that hard work could be devastated by this abandonment.

The economy of a rural state like Maine cannot grow without a robust and fully functioning transportation system. In northern Maine, this railroad represents a crucial part of the economic infrastructure that is so central to the livelihoods of individuals and families as well as the survival of our local businesses.

I have talked to many Mainers who are terrified about what abandonment will mean for them, their families, and their jobs. If this line shuts down, it will devastate the region and create new challenges for all of us that want to sustain jobs and grow the northern Maine economy. We need to keep this line open and work together to make the changes necessary to ensure that it can keep serving the region.

One of the biggest problems impacting the long-term viability of this line is how unreliable rail service can often be. It can take days for a load to make it from one part of Maine to another. Sometimes trains don’t show up. Sometimes they crawl along broken track at 10 miles per hour. I remember all of this well from my time loading these rail cars when I worked at Great Northern Paper.

And while the current railroad has been plagued by inefficiencies that have troubled shippers in the region for some time, it remains an indispensable part of our economic infrastructure in northern Maine. It helps Maine businesses ship everything from wood chips, to finished lumber, to engineered wood products, to logs, to fuel, to cooking oil to market.

Maine’s congressional delegation is ready to fight for the federal resources necessary to make this rail line efficient again. But before we can do that, the State of Maine, shippers and, most importantly, MMA need to show that they are serious about keeping this line operational.

At last October’s meeting we recognized that it would take everyone working together to keep the railroad operational. And we can still make sure that it happens. But everyone involved is going to have to make a sacrifice for the good of the businesses and individuals that depend on it.

I appreciate that the STB held the hearing in Presque Isle. And I appreciate all of the time that so many people here in Maine have dedicated to saving this line. I am still hopeful that working together we can save it.