Residents push back against proposed rail-banking optionConcerns raised about cost of rail trail construction to taxpayers
Belfast — During a standing-room-only City Council meeting Tuesday, July 17, residents overwhelmingly voiced their displeasure with a proposed plan to rail-bank the city-owned rail corridor that stretches from the Armistice Footbridge to the Waldo County line.
One of the questions councilors have wrestled with is how much of the corridor the city should bank. One option was banking the section beginning in the area of the Armistice Footbridge out as far as City Point Rail.
The Brooks Preservation Society, which operates the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railway, utilizes the rail for train rides from May through October. Banking from the Footbridge to City Point Rail would minimize the impact on the Preservation Societies activities.
During an interview Monday, July 23, City Manager Joseph Slocum said councilors don't want to eliminate all rail activity in Belfast, so banking from the Armistice Footbridge to City Point would still leave rail access from City Point to the county line, which Belfast owns. Because the section of rail from City Point to the county line is still active, there is no need for the city to bank the entire three mile corridor, Slocum said.
Residents who attended the meeting expressed frustration with the city’s rail-banking plan and questioned the need for the proposed rail trail.
“I’m dead-set against rail-banking. Once we take the rails off, they won’t go back,” Belfast resident Blaine Richardson said. “We need a walking path along there like we need a hole in the head.”
Richardson said nothing is stopping people from using the rail corridor as it exists now, since people can walk along the side of the rail if they desire. He noted that the city is becoming “a little bit Disneyland” because of the number of sidewalks in the community.
“We have sidewalks everywhere now, and now we want to put one next to the river. We really need to start looking at where we’re spending our money,” he said.
Joseph Feero, executive director of the Brooks Preservation Society, said he is disheartened by the council’s characterization that the rail corridor isn’t used, stating there is significant activity on the rail. He noted people who ride the rails are spending a few nights in Belfast and spending money in the city.
“The railroad could contribute $1 million to the regional economy. It would be erroneous to do this without considering the impact,” Feero said.
Like Richardson, Feero also expressed concern that the city would remove the existing rail in order to construct a trail, but those rails would never go back into place once removed.
Many of the residents who spoke against the city proposal to pursue rail-banking are on fixed incomes and cited those limited incomes as a reason the city should curtail anymore spending. Some residents noted that their property taxes continue to rise, but they don’t see a rise in their Social Security payments.
At times discussion segued into concern about the proposed city budget before Mayor Walter Ash Jr. asked speakers to stay on-topic. However, many residents argued that the city budget and the question about rail-banking were ultimately connected, as taxpayers would be picking up the tab.
Councilor Roger Lee reminded residents that the councilors would not be voting to expend any money at the meeting. He also said a ballpark figure for the rail trail construction expenditure would be in the area of $800,000. That number is down about $500,000 from the original cost estimates provided by Vanassse Hangen Brustlin to construct a trail, which ranged from $1.3 million for the cheaper option to $5.5 million on the high end, depending on whether the trail went next to the rail or over the rail, and if the path was paved or not.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to spend it,” Lee said.
While councilors tried to reassure residents there wouldn’t be any cost associated with rail-banking, resident Jayne Giles challenged that assessment, noting that the costs could appear in the form of legal fees and city employee time spent working on the project.
Giles also voiced concern about the fact that there isn’t a line item in the 2013 fiscal year budget for any costs associated with rail-banking.
“If there is no budget for this, then I would be concerned with proceeding. I don’t think we should be aggressively pursuing this,” she said.
Councilors were also questioned as to whether rail-banking would require the city to tear up the existing rail. City Manager Joseph Slocum said taking up the rail is an option, but not required. Councilor Marina Delune noted that the rail would have to be replaced anyway at some point in the future if they are to be used to haul freight on.
“It’s not that hard to put the rail back,” she said.
However, Feero disagreed that the rail needed to be removed at all and said that with a little work they could be used to haul freight. He also questioned why the Council chose not to bring any rail experts into conversations about the trail or rail-banking options.
After discussion ended, councilors voted to table a decision about pursuing rail-banking until their next meeting.
Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or at email@example.com.