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The Northern Maine Rail Initiative

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On April 25, 2012, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation held the RPO America Peer Symposium, during the 2012 National Rural Transportation Conference in Burlington, Vermont.  This special session, held with support from the Federal Highway Administration, focused on “Sharing Innovations in Regional Transportation Planning.”

The second presenter to cover the integration of transportation and economic development was Alain Ouellette from the Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC), who spoke about saving a significant 233-mile rail corridor in his region. Aroostook County has an extensive history of industrial rail, dating back to 1891. Today, large volumes of forest and agricultural products move through the region, on what was the Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA) line until recently. The potential abandonment of the line would have led to the loss of 1,726 jobs in Aroostook County, resulting in a loss of $73 million in annual direct earnings for the county and $116 million of the region’s GDP, a total loss of $340 million. These figures served as a call to action for affected stakeholders and businesses.

The NMDC immediately joined the effort by identifying shippers to form a private sector coalition in support of restoration of the rail line, and received a large positive response. Throughout the fall and winter of 2009, the agency participated in meetings in Washington, DC with federal and state representatives. The State of Maine hired consultants Railroad Industries, Inc. to evaluate the business case for the plan and assess the viability of the line as a private enterprise. The NMDC facilitated communication between shippers and the consultants.

Montreal Maine & Atlantic officially announced its intent to apply for abandonment in early 2010. The NMDC worked with state legislators on critical documents, while Maine’s congressional delegation played an important role in setting meetings and securing support, such as a meeting in Bangor, Maine between the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the U.S. Department of Transportation, and shippers. The shippers clearly articulated their position and the FRA pledged assistance to secure a future for the rail system. Around this time, Railroad Industries, Inc. released its report, finding that the line was viable but in need of work.

Through the spring and summer of 2010, NMDC hosted shipper meetings with the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) to reaffirm the level of support and were met with a strong response, which Ouellette referred to as a “pivotal moment.” An $18 million bond was approved for the purchase of the rail, which included $7 million in new bonding authority, $7 million that was reallocated, and $4 million from Maine’s rainy day fund. Then-Governor Baldacci established an oversight task force of congressional delegates, state highway and economic development commissioners, and private shippers, while the NMDC played a role in maintaining communication with the business community to keep them apprised of progress on the project. MaineDOT also applied for TIGER II funds.

The next stage of the process involved negotiations between MaineDOT and Montreal Maine & Atlantic, particularly for trackage rights on both ends of the line. The deal granted the new operator access to parts of the rail still owned by MMA. After what Ouellette called a “frustrating process,” the abandonment process was dropped. If the project had not been successful, the only option would have been to sell off the line’s steel as scrap and face the job and revenue losses outlined above, making the deal a victory for northern Maine. USDOT awarded TIGER funds to repair and rehabilitate the rail.

In January 2011, the state purchased the railroad and issued an RFP for operators. Eastern Maine Railways was selected on the basis of its comprehensive proposal, familiarity with the region, and financial stability. Since beginning operations, the average speed of the line has increased from 15 to 35 miles per hour.

Ouellette concluded by sharing lessons learned in the words of his colleagues. It is important to begin background work early and to be tenacious and committed to the project. The Executive Director of NMDC Robert Clark attributes success to keeping the shippers engaged and involved throughout the process.

For more information about the NMDC, click here. For more on the partnership with MaineDOT, read the 2011 NADO Research Foundation Connecting the DOTs by former MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole.

View more presentations from RPO America

The proceedings of the 2012 RPO America Peer Symposium were researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow Kate Humphrey under the direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel.  This work is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-10-C-00050 through the NADO Research Foundation (www.RuralTransportation.org).  Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.

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