State begins search for rail line operator
By Kathy McCarty
A decision made by the Federal Railroad Administration Jan. 13, allowing the state to take ownership of approximately 233 miles of rail line in northern Maine, has authorities now seeking an operator to provide service between Millinocket and Madawaska.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, said the FRA had “cleared all legal hurdles for the state of Maine to take ownership of a portion of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway in Aroostook and Penobscot counties,” a measure, she said, that will “preserve rail service for that part of the state.”
With strong support from Collins, the Department of Transportation provided a $10.5 million grant in October 2010 to the Maine Department of Transportation for repairs and upgrades for the affected section of railroad.
Collins, an Aroostook County native, noted how important rail service is to the economic vitality of the region and the state. Mills from Ashland to Easton, Madawaska to Houlton have relied over the years on rail service to move products to and from markets to the south.
“I understand how important the continued operation of this rail line is to Maine’s economy. The decision allows the state of Maine to take clear ownership of this portion of track, rehabilitate it and improve it in order to preserve rail service for nearly two dozen employers in Aroostook and Penobscot counties. This will help prevent the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs which are dependent upon rail service,” Collins said.
Last April, FRA Administrator Joe Szabo traveled to Bangor, at Collins’ request, to meet with the senator, Governor John Baldacci, local and state officials, and businesses to discuss how to preserve rail service in northern Maine. Szabo called Collins to inform her that the FRA had reached an agreement to allow the state to own that portion of the rail line.
In making this announcement, Szabo said, “Sen. Collins was instrumental in saving rail service in northern Maine, since she brought the issue to the attention of the secretary of transportation, invited me to attend a forum in Maine with key stakeholders and worked to secure crucial federal funds for upgrades to the railroad.”
“The decision by FRA clears the way for the state to take over this rail line, so we can begin the important work of upgrading and rehabilitating the tracks to preserve and improve rail service for northern Maine,” said Collins.
Congressman Mike Michaud, who worked at paper mills in the Millinocket region, acknowledged how important it was to keep this line in operation.
“This action represents another important step forward in keeping freight rail operational in northern Maine. This action, combined with the resources made available by the state and the federal government, will help ensure the rail line’s long-term viability. It’s been a long road, but it’s crucial that this rail line is preserved. There are too many businesses and jobs that rely on this line not to get this done,” said Michaud.
Although it took over a year to work out the details, the wait is now over.
“It took a little more time than expected but the purchase and sale of the tracks has been completed. The state is now the owner of the line,” said Denis Berube, director of planning and transportation services, Northern Maine Development Commission.
Berube said last-minute discussions during the last week in December, “resulted in no changes to the deal and pushed the closing too close to the change in administration.”
“It was judged that this should be done by the new government. Therefore, the new administration had to be briefed on the issue prior to authorizing it to go through,” Berube said.
Weather also factored into the delay.
“The signing process started Wednesday morning, but the big downstate storm delayed the arrival of necessary legal documents from the FRA,” said Berube, noting the process required the use of original documents and that faxed copies weren’t an option.
Berube said “final legalities were completed (Jan. 13),” with deeds being delivered and recorded in Bangor, Houlton and Fort Kent on Thursday, Jan. 14, “which then allowed for the money to be released.”
Berube said adjustments “may be made accordingly to the RFP timetable to adjust for the delay.”
“If so, new dates/deadlines will be put out in short order but the changes won’t be that significant in the grand scheme. The goal is to have a new operator around the end of March. As I’ve mentioned before, MM&A will continue running trains until such time as the new operator is ready to take over,” said Berube.
“It took over a year to this point, now the work starts to find a replacement operator for these tracks,” Berube said.