Roads + Rail
Commissioner Bernhardt briefs MBTA on key projects in The County
Transportation is on the move in Aroostook County, and that appears to be having an effect on the local economy. That was one of the messages at the MBTA’s 2012 Aroostook County Meeting, August 2 at the Northeastland Hotel in Presque Isle.
The County has been the site of two of the state’s biggest transportation initiatives of late: the state’s $20.1 million purchase of 233 miles of rail line in 2011; and the construction of the $20 million Caribou Connector that opened on August 17. Featured speaker, MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt, talked about those two projects and more at the meeting that was attended by 65 MBTA members and friends.
MBTA President Doug Hermann of Wyman & Simpson greeted the crowd and introduced several notable guests, including Representative Ken Theriault (D-Madawaska) and Representative Alex Willette (R-Mapleton) and his wife Melissa. Theriault and Willette are on the Maine Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, and Hermann was sure to recognize Willette for helping expedite travel and commerce in The County with one recent piece of legislation he sponsored.
“You can thank Representative Willette for putting in the bill that allowed you to drive 75 mph – legally – on the interstate on the way up here,” said Hermann.
Also attending were: Senator Roger Sherman (R-Houlton); Representative Bernard Ayotte (R-Caswell); Representative Joyce Fitzpatrick (R-Houlton); and Representative Peter Edgecomb (R-Caribou) and his wife Marjie.
Phil Bosse, from U.S. Senator Susan Collins’ Aroostook County office also attended, as did Jon McLaughlin, president of Leaders Encouraging Aroostook County (LEAD) and executive director of the Southern Aroostook Development Corporation; Bob Dorsey, of Aroostook Partners for Progress and who is also with LEAD; and Theresa Fowler, director of the Mid-Aroostook Chamber of Commerce in Presque Isle.
Hermann gave the crowd a quick update on recent MBTA activities and initiatives, including plans to campaign for passage of Question 4, the $51.5 million transportation bond referendum that is on the November ballot. He urged members to help spread the word about the bond that will match more than $100 million in federal transportation funds. He also spoke about the board’s decision to move ahead on an effort to build a coalition to promote increased long-term transportation funding.
“We are reviving some past efforts for a long-term funding campaign to get transportation better funded in Maine,” said Hermann.
“We know that the commissioner and his department do a great job with the very limited resources they have, but we need to put more money into the system so that we can do more highway reconstruction, fix more bridges, and get some economic development projects funded, like the Presque Isle Bypass. So we will be asking other groups to join us, and are hopeful that LEAD will assist us as they have in the past.”
Investments ‘benefit everyone’
Commissioner Bernhardt’s talk focused on his department’s recent efforts to advance transportation in Aroostook County, including the Aroostook County Transportation Study, the state’s purchase of the northern Maine rail line and other projects.
In regard to government investments in the rail line – the federal government issued $10.5 million in TIGER grant funding (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) to upgrade the track – Bernhardt said that 60 percent of the upgrades have been completed. Additionally, Maine Northern Railroad, the new operator of the line, has made significant investments in equipment and personnel for the line. All of those public and private investments are paying off, according to Bernhardt, who told the MBTA audience that the traffic on the rail line had tripled from 100 carloads per week to a high of 300 carloads since the state purchased the line and Maine Northern took over.
“Irving has money to put into rail that we haven’t seen in the past. It benefits everyone,” said Bernhardt. Notably, the upgrades and improvements to the service have reduced freight times considerably. Bernhardt said it now takes just 36 hours for a freight car to move from Aroostook to Boston, down from several days. He said the goal is to increase track speeds to 25 miles per hour.
Now that the Caribou Connector is complete, Bernhardt outlined the next steps to advance work on the Presque Isle Connector. He said a route has been selected – Alternative No. 7 – and the regulatory process is well underway. The Army Corps of Engineers issued the LEDPA (Least Damaging Practicable Alternative) in late June. The Federal Highway Authority is expected to issue a record of decision within the coming months, completing the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process.The Presque Isle project will include construction of 9.8 miles of new highway, plus 2.3 miles of approach roads and will cost approximately $120 million. Only $22 million of that funding – including state funds and federal earmarks – has been identified to date.
The meeting concluded with the 50/50 Raffle drawing that raised $220. Stacy Caron of the Lane Construction Corporation was the evening’s winner. She took home the $110 prize; the remaining $110 goes to the MBTA Educational Foundation that awards scholarships to Maine students.