AUGUSTA – House Minority Leader Josh Tardy raised questions Tuesday about a Democratic proposal to borrow money to buy Aroostook County railroad tracks — a $17 million piece of a proposed $85 million bond package.

Tardy, R-Newport, wondered whether it is wise to buy what are now unprofitable lines.

“Even if we had capacity (to borrow money), I am very skeptical that the Aroostook rail bond is a good idea,” he said. “I think there are alternatives that should be explored exhaustively.”

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has announced plans to abandon 233 miles of track from Millinocket to Madawaska. Twenty-two companies — including Dead River Co., Columbia Forest Products and Fraser Timber — use the track to ship goods, according to the railroad.

Transportation Commissioner David Cole said the state has an interest in preserving the jobs that could be affected if the railroad rips up the line.

“People work for these 22 shippers and we’re preserving jobs and competitiveness,” he said. “The longer this drags out, the more uncertainty it causes for the shippers.”

Railway President Robert Grindrod has been working State House halls for a couple of weeks to convince lawmakers to support the bond.

“I’m down here trying to encourage an alternative solution, because I would rather see the track become part of a system owned by the state than see it torn up,” he said. “If the state can’t get its act together and come up with a plan, we’ll start tearing it up.”

He said the company could earn $20 million to $25 million selling the rails as scrap metal.

Cole said the state tried, and failed, to get federal funding to purchase the tracks. He said if the state invests money, the federal government will be more likely to help pay repair costs.

Tardy said the state has not inspected the rail lines, yet lawmakers are being asked to buy them.

“It’s a very poorly planned, poorly articulated proposal,” he said. “I can’t see us responsibly . . . spending $17 million, and going into the business of running the railroad knowing you’ve got $19 million of deferred maintenance on that rail.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]