Archive for October, 2009

Public invited to weigh in on railroad plan

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Maine’s 1,100-mile rail system is reaching a crossroads.

Freight carriers, especially to the north, are finding it increasingly hard to stay afloat because of declines in the paper industry and other manufacturing sectors that have traditionally been heavy users of their rail lines.

At the same time, the push is on for more passenger service as a way to cut energy use, emissions and maintenance costs for streets, bridges and highways, and reduce sprawl.

Maine transportation officials are trying to sort out the issues by developing the state’s first comprehensive railroad plan, to assess the trends and come up with an investment plan.

The Department of Transportation is inviting the public to comment on what the state’s priorities should be, at a meeting from 6 to 8 tonight at the University of Southern Maine’s Glickman Library in Portland.

The plan, due out next year, will help Maine in its search for federal money for rail improvements and help the state set priorities for investment, said Nate Moulton, director of the transportation department’s rail program.

“We need to look hard and see what it is going to cost so we can report out what is doable,” said Moulton.

Transportation officials say that a robust freight rail system is important to Maine’s economy and environment.

Trains are less likely to spill hazardous substances than trucks.

A freight train can move a ton of freight an average of 436 miles on a gallon of fuel, according to the American Association of Railroads. A single train takes 280 trucks off Maine roads, easing traffic congestion and saving wear and tear on the roads.

For some manufacturers, freight trains are the cheapest way to move large quantities of heavy products over long distances.

The track mileage in Maine has shrunk more than 50 percent over the past century, from 2,295 miles in 1920. The state now owns 300 miles of track and is under pressure to buy more as railroad companies struggle.

State officials are considering whether to buy the 241 miles of track from Millinocket to Madawaska, now owned by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. The railway wants to abandon the track, worth about $17 million, because it is too expensive to maintain.

The question is whether the track would be profitable under state ownership and whether buying the track would prompt more abandonment by other rail companies.

Developing a railway plan will give transportation officials an overall strategy for ownership questions in the future, Moulton said.

The state also hopes to prioritize all competing interests for freight and passenger service in various regions.

“There are all kinds of demands. There is the Brunswick-Yarmouth-(Interstate) 295 corridor crowd, and the Mountain Division is beating the drum,” said Moulton.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, operator of Amtrak’s Downeaster service, is applying for $137 million in federal stimulus money to extend the line from Portland to Brunswick and make track improvements to shave 20 minutes of travel time between Portland and Boston.

Lewiston and Auburn officials are pushing for commuter rail in their region and the state is studying whether freight and passenger service could return to the Mountain Division line, from Westbrook to the New Hampshire border at Fryeburg.

Interest in passenger rail has exploded in recent years. Congress approved $2 billion over the next two years for the development of intercity commuter rail service. The federal government, states and regions are also at work on passenger rail plans.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and a member of the technical advisory committee that is helping to develop Maine’s plan, said the state needs a plan for maintaining service and ensuring there are enough riders.

The state’s only daily passenger service, the Downeaster, depends on about $1.6 million in state and $6 million in federal money annually to operate five daily round trips between Portland and Boston, which carry 266,000 passengers a year.

Neal Allen, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments and a member of the advisory committee, said he expects tonight’s meeting to attract a large crowd.

“What is really important, in my view, is to think of the plan in terms of how it might integrate with a New England plan, ” he said.

There will be a second round of public meetings in November, when transportation officials will report their preliminary recommendations. The final plan will be available around Jan. 1.