The Belfast City Council commended the efforts of the rail enthusiasts at the Brooks Preservation Society Jan. 5, but stopped short of granting permission to use city property to extend the reach of its rail excursion service.

BPS signed a lease agreement in October for a three-mile stretch of track extending from the Waldo-Belfast town line to Veterans’ Memorial Bridge. The group previously held lease agreements to operate on the remainder of the 33-mile Belfast-to-Burnham Junction rail corridor.

The missing piece – a 1,500-foot run between the bridge and the old rail terminus — crosses land owned by Penobscot McCrum and the city of Belfast. Jan. 5 City Manager Joe Slocum said a portion of the city’s claim might also be leased to the owner of the former Stinson Seafood property, through which the railway passes.

To date, permission to use the track has been a hot potato between the city and Penobscot McCrum. Belfast has looked to McCrum’s right of way as the next logical acquisition for the rail group, but McCrum has deferred to the city.

BPS Executive Director Joe Feero addressed concerns expressed by city officials that the return of the railroad would throw a wrench in the redevelopment of the downtown waterfront, describing a revived rail service as a small part of a diverse economic development plan. Rather than impede development, he said, having a working rail service could accelerate it.

Feero cited earlier failed attempts to redevelop the former Stinson sardine cannery and offered the railroad as a “here, now” option. BPS carried 3,000 riders in 2009 and could serve as many as 20,000 in five years’ time, he said.

To protect its interest, Feero said the city could add a termination clause to the lease, in effect giving the city an out at any time, for any reason.

In the meeting, City Councilor Mike Hurley described the history of the railroad as having “an immense amount of promise, an immense amount of passion and an immense amount of pain.” Past rail efforts, once defunct, had been difficult to extricate from downtown, he said. Hurley also worried that the city would debate the topic endlessly, only to find McCrum unwilling to lease his stretch of track.

Councilor Roger Lee said the amount of waterfront property that could be redeveloped in the future, including the Penobscot McCrum property – unlikely to always be a manufacturing site because of its waterfront location – made the return of the railroad a risky proposition. Lee was doubtful that a termination agreement could be exercised without a political battle.

Councilor Eric Sanders questioned growth projections presented in BPS’s business plan that indicated a 1,500 percent jump in revenue in five years, to which BPS representatives replied that ridership would probably level off in 2015.

Councilor Lewis Baker and Mayor Walter Ash lent their support to the project. Baker said the uncertain future of the waterfront provides a good reason to support the return of the railroad.

“If we have an opportunity to make a positive impact on the community with little or no downside, we’d be foolish to throw it away,” he said.

A portion of the route presented by BPS overlaps the planned route of a coastal walkway that would connect the Footbridge with Steamboat Landing. The walkway is currently in the planning stages. The northern end, which follows the rail corridor, is slated as a temporary construction, due to the uncertain fate of the former Stinson cannery.

BPS operations manager Robert Gillum, who worked on the Belfast & Moosehead Lake railroad and later on the Maine Eastern Railroad, addressed Council concerns that the railway would be incompatible with the coastal walkway, saying that the rail could be filled in to make it walkable. The “serpentine” nature of railroad tracks would allow them to be shifted with relative ease if a future development called for it, he said.

In response to concerns from the Council about pedestrian safety on the stretch of track within downtown Belfast, Gillum said BPS would treat the area as it would any crossing, employing a flagman walking ahead of the slow-moving train and additional flagmen on the sides if needed.

BPS volunteer Russ Barber presented the Council with a list of 50 local businesses that support the return of the railroad, and letters of recommendation from a number of groups, including the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Eastern Railroad, and local businesses including Comfort Inn.

Hurley wondered why BPS advocates had gone to the trouble of collecting endorsements from downtown businesses without some assurance from McCrum.

“Work it out with McCrum,” he said. “If you can’t get across McCrum, this conversation is a waste of time.”

Lee asked if the trains could disembark at Pierce Street or, at some future date, under Veterans’ Memorial Bridge. Loading and unloading passengers at Pierce Street would be difficult, Gillum said, and if it were possible, people would likely use the Penobscot McCrum parking lot.

Ash noted that the businesses that endorsed the return of the railroad would want the end of the line as close to downtown as possible. Gillum also said that the length of the train would need to be considered.

Baker recommended BPS representatives return to the Council after they had spoken with McCrum again.

Hurley said, “I’m very interested in what Mr. McCrum says.”

During the same meeting, the Council took steps to scale back the coastal walkway. City Planner Wayne Marshall recommended that the southernmost segment of the walkway be put on hold. The current plan calls for a provisional route around privately owned property between Heritage Park and Steamboat Landing. Marshall recommended bringing the path through Heritage Park and ending it at Front Street. From that point, people could use Front and Spring streets to get to Steamboat Landing.

With the north end of the walkway slated for temporary construction, Marshall recommended concentrating efforts on the more certain middle segment between Marshall Wharf and Heritage Park. The Council was generally supportive. Marshall said the city is bound to demonstrate “substantive progress” within 18 months to satisfy the terms of a $250,000 Maine Department of Transportation grant that is partially funding the project.