Residents push back against proposed rail-banking option

Concerns raised about cost of rail trail construction to taxpayers
By Ben Holbrook | Jul 25, 2012
Photo by: Ben Holbrook Residents voiced their displeasure to the City Council in regards to a proposal to rail bank the city owned corridor in order to construct a walking trail at a future date.

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 bholbrook@courierpublicationsllc.com.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Harold Richardson | Jul 31, 2012 11:16

That's all good information Bruce.  I think the council is doing a great job but they do not pretend to be experts on rail.  I am also a rail fan but like many know little about details, specs etc.  I just like trains.  My problem with the current situation is that the city has this tremendous resource and I don't believe the city gets much benefit at all when the excursions start in the middle of nowhere.  My guess is that the people get back on the buses and continue on their way.  The best outcome would be for the train to come right into town as before and have a hiking trail along side-that's the best of both worlds.  I think the argument about the rails never being put back is a canard.  The most important thing it seems is to keep the corridor open-if market dictates the value of a train coming right into town, it would be done.  The open corridor is the key I think.  I also can't imagine what type of freight would have to be loaded on Front Street and couldn't be done at City Point where there is so much more room and several roads in and out of the area.  The bay isn't deep enough and all the shipping business is in Searsport.  I hope that all the parties involved can get together and come up with the best long term solution.  An impact study making sure the tourist train gets its' due and let's see what they come up with.  I was disappointed when the combined use was dismissed so quickly.  There may be several sources of funding if rail is included.  Regardless there should be no need to hurry on this and make a mistake.  Some of the speakers at the meeting that night knew what they were talking about but most didn't and I think an in depth article would serve to educate the public.



Posted by: Bruce Cooper | Jul 31, 2012 00:32

Although I am not a year round resident of Belfast (I live near Philadelphia), I have summered here almost every year since the 1950's and have had family living in Belfast, Searsport, Stockton, Frankfort, Bucksport, and/or Winterport since 1759. As a railroad historian with four published books, many articles, and a 13-year old 10,000+ webpage railroad history website (CPRR.org), I have many time ridden over entire 33+ mile B&ML grade of which all but the three mile city owned section within the Belfast city limits is currently owned by the Maine DOT. (I was also once a minority shareholder in the B&ML.) I attended the City Council meeting on July 17 at which the rail banking issue was discussed (and tabled until the next meeting) and was puzzled by a couple of comments made by members of the Council which I found to be inaccurate.

As Joe Ferro of the Brooks Preservation Society, the current operator of the railroad, noted in his presentation, the excursion trains that run on weekends between Upper Bridge (MP 1) and Waldo (MP 7) are bringing up to $1,000,000 to the local economy which would be lost if the city's portion of the grade up to the city limits is decommissioned through rail banking. While the B&ML might still be able to run from City Point rail at the Oak Hill grade crossing, its operations would nevertheless be severely degraded as the portion of the grade along the river between Upper Bridge and City Point rail is by far the most scenic and attractive to its riders of the one hour ride to Waldo and back. Thus any contention that forcing the BML to no longer be able to use that portion of the grade between MP 1 and City Point rail would not negatively impact their operations is demonstrably false.

I was also puzzled by Councilor Delune's comment 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. The rail over this entire portion of the grade being considered for rail banking is 85 lb steel rail rolled between 1900 and 1910 which has been in place since the Maine Central (which operated the road under lease from 1871 to December 31, 1925) upgraded the line from the original Welsh pear rail more than a century ago. Over the years since then literally hundreds of thousands of freight cars ran over these rails without difficulty. I have walked and photographed this entire portion of the grade as recently as two weeks ago and can tell you that the rail and grade are in fine shape and there is no way it would need "to be replaced" in order to resume the type of freight operations that it might ever be used for in the future.

One last thing to consider and respect is the historic value of the B&ML. The B&ML grade opened in 1871 -- just two years after the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 -- and all but the Belfast Yard still survives 141 years later. (I invite anyone who is interested in the B&ML's story to visit my extensive on-line illustrated history of the road at BMLRR.com.) If any part of this historic grade were to be pulled up, it is pure folly to believe that it would ever be laid down again. Once gone it would be gone forever and that would be a tragedy.

Bruce C. Cooper

BCC@BMLRR.com



Posted by: Harold Richardson | Jul 25, 2012 14:25

The Journal printed an editorial a couple of weeks ago criticizing the council in regards to this rail-trail.  I think a much more in depth article would be educational for the public.  Does the city own this land outright or is it just a right of way?  Could someone else have bought this if the city didn't?  If the city owns the land, is there a value to it, can it be sold-what could a private owner do with it?  Contrary to one of the speakers, it seems to me that the best way to protect future use of the rail would be to "bank" it.  Most abandon rails have lost their right of way as things have been built on them etc-banking would keep the corridor available.  I love trains and I wish the tourist train still came right into town, but since it doesn't, I think they would do better starting out at city point rather than in the middle of nowhere as they do now.  Who's bright idea was it to discuss this at the same meeting as the budget increase?  I've travelled quite a bit, and these rail trails are huge assests to communities.  This last weekend was a great example of how popular Belfast can be and the influx of tourists having a great time and supporting local business.  I would think that this trail would be a 4 season attraction and I hope it isn't shelved before it gets a fair hearing and all sides of the issue are discussed.  I would be against spending local property tax dollars on this today but there are non profits out there that will help to fund this and there may be other sources of funding available as well.  I understand that these are stressful times and no one wants their taxes increased-especially for something like this, but lets have all the facts and figures so a reasonable decision can be made.          



If you wish to comment, please login.