High turnout signals keen public interest in development of Maine’s first comprehensive rail plan
By Kathryn Buxton
In late january, the engineering firm HNTB Corp. delivered a hefty 200-plus-page document to MaineDOT. It was the firm’s first draft of Maine’s first state rail plan, a transportation document eagerly anticipated by a diverse group.
Business interests are looking to the state to lay out a plan that will help support low-cost rail freight options for Maine manufactured products.
Passenger rail advocates, buoyed by the recent announcement that the Amtrak Downeaster service is to be extended to Freeport and Brunswick, have their sights set on passenger service connecting more Maine cities.
Port and trucking advocates are pushing for a plan that maps out a course for establishing stronger intermodal connections with marine and truck routes.
That kind of broad support and engaged participation is unusual, according to Ray Tomczak, a rail expert who has worked on rail projects in northern New Jersey, New York, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania. Tomczak, a manager of planning for HNTB in New Jersey, is the lead consultant on Maine’s rail plan project.
“Coming here from New Jersey, what most shocked me was the level of participation. In New Jersey, where you’ve got eight million people, you don’t get 80 to 100 people at a rail meeting,” said Tomczak.
In Maine, he added, there has “been a sense of urgency and excitement” at the public input meetings held throughout the state – excitement for the prospect of passenger rail and urgency for the economic development opportunities that freight rail represents at a time when the state is recovering from a major economic recession.
A state rail plan is required for future federal funding under the multi-year rail funding authorization, thePassenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) that passed in June 2008 and funds the state’s rail programs through 2011.
That requirement was the impetus for the rail plan, but the high level of public interest can be attributed to events after PRIIA passed. With fluctuating fuel costs, a broader national discussion of energy efficiency and the recession, the idea of passenger and freight rail as an economic development tool has captured the public’s attention.
Part of the rail planning process included two formal sessions with a technical advisory committee, leaders from the transportation, rail and manufacturing industries who provided input for the plan. Gordon Page of Maine Eastern Railroad attended those meetings and describes them as “participatory events” with dozens of business and transportation advocates covering topics from rail crossings to competition with the trucking industry. There were several legislators there, as well, and Page said it was important for everyone there to be a part of the discussion.
“Nobody held anything back. Everyone was very free to express themselves,” said Page.
For Maine Eastern’s part, the scope of the discussions, covering both passenger and freight rail, was very important. “We’re the only active rail operator in the state with both freight and passenger service, and our interest is multifold,” said Page who was joined at the meetings by Gordon Fuller, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Morristown & Erie Railway, Maine Eastern’s parent company.
Jack Sutton, president of the Maine Rail Group also participated in the advisory committee meetings, and said he believes many positive things have already come from the process. “Having a well-thought-out plan in place and ready will be the foundation of the future of rail in Maine,” said Sutton. He believes that being ready and willing to put federal dollars to work quickly will be a major factor in rail funding in the coming years. States with stronger, more comprehensive plans in place could fare better as federal rail dollars become more competitive. He cites how the work NNEPRA has done over the past several years with municipalities, the rail line owner and Amtrak to lay the groundwork for passenger service north of Portland paid off with the recent high speed rail grant.
“The only thing lacking was the funding mechanism,” a thing Sutton believes made the project appear more viable to the FRA.
Another bonus from the project has been the extensive outreach MaineDOT has done to get more people at the table, talking about rail and the possibilities.
“There has been a great deal more public outreach on this than in the past on rail issues,” said Sutton. “I’m not sure all the interested parties have taken as much advantage of it as they should, but there has been the opportunity.”
Sutton said that in the public meetings, in addition to keen interest in passenger rail, there were businesses expressing a need to strengthen Maine’s rail freight resources, including the expansion of multimodal hubs where shippers can transfer goods from rail to truck and vice versa.
To be competitive, he said, Maine must look beyond its borders to keep abreast of rail developments favoring shippers and receivers elsewhere in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
“It comes down to attracting and keeping the paying customers that justify competitive rail services, along with the right combinations of private and public investment to support the infrastructure. The future of passenger rail services in Maine depends largely on the presence of a healthy freight rail system. Ultimately, it’s the public’s choice to demand and use rail services, or lose them.”
HNTB’s Tomczak said that emphasis on shipper logistics and the flow of goods between manufacturers and markets will be reflected in the document’s analysis of multimodal opportunities, including links between Maine’s three major ports (Eastport, Searsport and Portland) and its rail system.
Tomczak said the planning process has been served well by the public input, but what comes after the plan is complete will be key. “A lot of folks came up with great ideas and have a ton of knowledge of the system. Everyone is all for preserving and improving rail in Maine,” said Tomczak. “But the number one thing is the funding and finding people to spread the word and spend more time to help the governor and the legislature to educate the public and come up with ways to fund the vision.”
The first draft of the plan currently is under review at MaineDOT. Nate Moulton, rail plan project manager, said he expects to have a draft to share with the advisory committee sometime in March, and the report to be ready for the final round of public comment in April.
One of the challenges to completing the document is that “changes have overtaken us. . . the earth has shifted,” Moulton said, referring to the news of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s plan to abandon 233 miles of track in northern Maine line, the Downeaster’s $35 million high speed rail grant and the announcement of the TIGER grants – much of the funding went to freight rail and corridor projects in other parts of the country. “There are a ton of moving pieces to this and so many pieces have ramifications for so many different potential rail users,” said Moulton.
The plan, too, has grown in scope. MaineDOT has requested additional research and interviews be included. The department hopes to have more input from individual shippers, and further information on condition and levels of service on some of the privately held rail lines. Moulton said the state also has asked HNTB to identify how Maine’s rail network can be developed to best feed into regional “critical rail corridors.” “It doesn’t help if there are bottlenecks downstream or upstream,” said Tomczak.
With the additions to the plan, Tomczak expects the final Maine State Rail Plan to swell to between 450 and 550 pages. “It’s going to be very comprehensive. It’s chock full of information,” said Tomczak. Still, both he and Moulton caution Maine’s rail and shipper communities to think of the final plan as “a work in progress.”
“You have to keep in mind this is not the be all and end all, it’s just a starting point,” said Tomczak.