LAST WEEK’S HEARING on train idling legislation was held on the heels of Maine Department of Environmental Protection hearings regarding a stormwater permit needed before construction of the train layover facility starts in Brunswick.

LAST WEEK’S HEARING on train idling legislation was held on the heels of Maine Department of Environmental Protection hearings regarding a stormwater permit needed before construction of the train layover facility starts in Brunswick.

BRUNSWICK

Opponents of a massive passenger train layover facility in Brunswick have opened up another front in the regulatory fight against the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority that oversees Amtrak’s Boston-to-Brunswick train service.

SEN. STAN GERZOFSKY

SEN. STAN GERZOFSKY

Last week, the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation held a hearing on a bill submitted by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, that would effectively ban the Downeaster from idling longer than 30 minutes.

“It’s been two years since the train came (to Brunswick) and it hasn’t stopped idling,” said Gerzofsky in an interview on Tuesday, noting that trains are idling for five hours a day near downtown and residential areas.

Members of Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition have signaled their strong support of Gerzofsky’s bill that limits idling of any passenger train in Maine during last week’s hearing in Augusta.

The hearing was held on the heels of Maine Department of Environmental Protection hearings held the day before regarding a stormwater permit needed before construction of the facility starts.

Many of those in favor of the bill — notably members of Brunswick West — testified against the DEP permit.

Gerzofsky’s bill “prohibits a passenger train engine from operating for more than 30 minutes while the train is stopped except for during repairs or servicing requiring the engine to be running or delivering or accepting merchandise or passengers requiring engine-assisted power and includes a fine of $2,500 for a violation of these provisions.”

Opponents said the state may not be able to dictate how long the Downeaster can idle.

“In my mind, there’s a pretty clear preemption,” said F. Bruce Sleeper, an attorney for passenger train advocacy group Trainriders/ Northeast.

According to Sleeper, the federal Surface Transportation Board has jurisdiction over all regulation of train operations, which applies to any state or local effort over who controls the idling of trains.

That was a notion refuted by Gerzofsky, who noted that NNEPRA is an agency set up by an act of the state legislature.

“NNEPRA has no exemption from anything,” said Gerzofsky.

“Even though the state agency (NNEPRA) is the one that funds the Downeaster, it’s an Amtrak service,” Sleeper said. “As a result, the state can’t regulate the operation. Amtrak actually operates the train.”

Other New England states do have regulations that limit the amount of time a train can idle that are federally enforceable through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Neither NNEPRA, the Downeaster, nor Amtrak are referred to by name in Gerzofsky’s bill, but Gerzofsky said that the “legislation has been directed at NNEPRA.”

Sleeper noted that the bill does not regulate just the Downeaster, and questioned whether other passenger train operations, such as Maine Eastern’s passenger service, would be affected.

“I can only speak for our operation, but a half-hour limit on idling is completely unrealistic and a figure derived out of thin air with no possible conception of the intricacies of railroad operations, equipment requirements or the usage thereof,” testified Thomas Testa, president of Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, that runs the Downeast Scenic Railroad, an excursion railroad that runs along the former Calais Branch line.

Downeaster trains idle in order to provide power to certain systems, including braking and air conditioning, often on tracks along Cedar Street.

Gerzofsky said other means are available to provide power to a train to prevent idling that would be cheaper than building the train shed.

Freight trains are not mentioned in the bill, because Gerzofsky said idling freight trains are not a problem in Brunswick.

Gerzofsky said he was motivated by “hundreds of complaints” about Downeaster idling in town, and the resulting pollution, and what he called NNEPRA’s unresponsiveness.

“They’ve made no attempt whatsoever to address these concerns of the last few years,” Gerzofsky said. “They’ve actually forced us into holding them accountable. Negotiations for two years didn’t work. We’ll see if a bill does.”

NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn testified that, due to mechanical requirements, it is virtually impossible to eliminate idling when train engines are outdoors in New England.

In an interview Tuesday, Quinn said more mechanical problems would arise if train idling time was restricted, resulting in impeded operations.

“We run the engines out of necessity, not because we feel like it,” Quinn said.

NNEPRA’s solution is to build a 52,000-square-foot, $12.2 million train shed on track between Stanwood Street and Church Road.

“lf the purpose of the bill is to prohibit excessive idling, wouldn’t it make more sense for Sen. Gerzofsky to support the construction of the Brunswick layover facility, which would allow trains to be switched off for overnight servicing, protecting crews and equipment from the weather?” said Emily Boochever, a member of Downeaster proponent group All Aboard Brunswick.

“That’s the old horse they drag out, and it just isn’t true,” said Bob Morrison of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition.

Morrison has maintained that engines will be idling both in and out of the facility.

In written testimony to the transportation committee, Morrison stated, in part: “… NNEPRA’S proposed maintenance/layover building, costing at least $10 million, will not solve any air pollution problems that our neighborhood and town currently suffer. On the contrary, the air pollution problems will actually be increased and cause additional problems such as polluted stormwater runoff, contaminated groundwater, excessive nighttime noise and vibration pollution for our neighborhood and the town of Brunswick.”

Standish state Rep. and Downeaster conductor Michael Shaw has stated that the bill “is simply too restrictive given the real world realities of trains and how they operate. As proposed the very narrow exemptions for idling would simply not allow for normal train operation. There are multiple scenarios in which a train might be stopped for 30 minutes for very valid reasons but would put it in violation. One that comes to mind immediately would be an accident.”

Committee member George Hogan, a representative of Old Orchard Beach, a town that has a Downeaster stop, declined to give an opinion on the bill “in all fairness” to other committee members.

The committee had not yet scheduled a work session on the bill as of Tuesday.

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The ‘idling’ bill

STATE SEN. STAN GERZOFSKY’S bill “prohibits a passenger train engine from operating for more than 30 minutes while the train is stopped except for during repairs or servicing requiring the engine to be running or delivering or accepting merchandise or passengers requiring engine-assisted power and includes a fine of $2,500 for a violation of these provisions.”


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