A $10.4 million upgrade of a section of the Mountain Division Rail Line, from Windham to West Baldwin, could begin in the spring if the Maine Department of Transportation is awarded a federal grant that would pay for most of the project.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will dole out $527 million next month through its competitive, three-year-old grant program called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER.

The state submitted an application at the end of last month for $8.3 million, which it would match with about $2 million, to upgrade 22 miles of railway in order to restore freight service west of Portland.

A wood-products company’s plan to build a plant in West Baldwin for manufacturing wood pellets was the impetus for the MDOT to pursue the project, said Nate Moulton, director of the department’s rail program.

The plant would generate 300,000 tons of wood pellets annually. The 3,000 rail car trips required to transport the pellets to Portland would make the rail line economically viable, Moulton said.

Most of the pellets would be shipped from Portland to Europe, where they would be burned to produce electricity.

The wood-products company, F.E. Wood & Sons, has said its plans don’t hinge on the restoration of freight service, but taking trucks off the road would make the company more attractive to European customers concerned with carbon emissions.

Construction on the rail line could be completed in about a year and coincide with the planned opening of the plant in 2013, Moulton said.

The only section of the Mountain Division line in operation in Maine is a six-mile stretch between Portland and Westbrook, which is used by the Sappi paper mill.

Another five miles, from Westbrook to South Windham, is being reconstructed. The unfinished portion of the $4 million project, from the Maine Correctional Center to Route 202 in Windham, is scheduled to be completed next spring.

Last spring, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, proposed legislation to borrow $21 million to continue the project and connect to Fryeburg, but the bill was carried over to the next session. Moulton said extending the line beyond the site of the proposed wood-pellet plant might not be worth the money yet, which was why a pared-down plan was submitted for the federal grant.

Along with its 25-page application, the state submitted 25 letters of support signed by business owners, state representatives and town officials from Baldwin, Fryeburg and Standish.

One seemingly unlikely letter writer was Lawrence Siedl, owner of L.E. Siedl Trucking, a Baldwin company that stands to lose customers to the rail line. What Siedl believes the railway will do for economic development, however, outweighs any fear he has of losing business.

“The more people working, the less I have to support,” he said, referring to reducing the number of welfare recipients by creating jobs.

Not everyone along the rail line is in favor of the project.

The Windham Town Council refused to sign a letter of support for the federal funding, as requested by the regional Route 113 Corridor Committee.

“We think it’s a total waste of money,” said Town Councilor Tom Gleason. “The taxpayers are paying money to subsidize business, I think, for no reason.”

The Windham officials might get their way.

Moulton said less than 2 percent of applicants for TIGER grants were awarded funding in the first two rounds, although Maine received money both times. Last year, MDOT was awarded $10.5 million for rail restoration in Aroostook County.

A U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman said Monday that the department is still processing its grant applications, which were due last week, and couldn’t provide the number of applicants or the total amount of money requested.

Despite the state’s past success in getting the grants, Moulton said, he’s not overconfident this time.

“It’s a very, very competitive program,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]