AUGUSTA — A bill that would limit railroad liability for accidents at private crossings will not be approved as written, state legislators said Thursday after hearing from people opposed to the bill.
The bill, which would affect all private crossings along the state’s 1,200 miles of railroad track, was criticized heavily during a public hearing of the state legislative judiciary committee.
“We understand there’s a huge problem,” Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said in the midst of testimony from a crowd of about 30.
The bill will be rewritten before the committee revisits the issue, Valentino said.
Many landowners who spoke against the bill were concerned that it did nothing to protect them from recent efforts by Pan Am Railways to dramatically increase fees assessed for maintenance of the crossing.
Cynthia Scarano, from Pan Am, said the company was not opposed to the idea of a bill that regulates maintenance fees.
In February 2012, Belgrade residents who cross railroad tracks to reach their camps began receiving notices from Pan Am that increased the assessments for maintenance of their crossings. Some who never before paid a fee were asked to begin doing so, and others saw their fees increase, in one case from $130 to $1,470 annually.
For similar agreements on crossings that go over state-owned railways, owners pay maintenance fees of about $350, according to Nate Moulton, who testified on behalf of the Maine Department of Transportation.
Pan Am’s 2012 letters also told residents that they would be responsible for carrying $10 million in liability insurance.
The resulting uproar eventually led to the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade.
Bill supporters said that if railroads had no liability at private crossings, they would have no reason to ask landowners to assume the liability and insurance costs.
Affected residents, however, testified that the bill did nothing to ensure that the railroad would follow through on its commitment. They also wanted the separate issue of maintenance fees to be addressed in the same piece of legislation, so Pan Am and other railroads’ fee structures would be regulated.
Belgrade resident Ron Fluet said the bill, which was drafted after meetings involving railroad representatives, legislators and the transportation department, should have included protection for the residents from the beginning.
“The way we’ve been dealt with by them just does not seem honorable or credible,” Fluet said.
Scarano, a Pan Am executive vice president, said the railroad has backed away from its initial efforts to collect maintenance fees and is open to a bill that would include maintenance fee regulations.
She said the initial round of letters were sent by the engineering department before administrators had screened them properly. The maintenance fees were assessed by a person who had been hired specifically for that job. A different person has since been chosen for that work, she said.
Keschl said he intended the bill to be a starting point that would bring the issue to the state’s attention rather than a final solution to the problem. He testified that he favors including residents’ concerns but said the issue is so complex that it will be difficult to legislate.
Moulton agreed, saying legislation would need to address about 20 types of existing agreements, some of which date to the 1860s.
Representatives of the Small Woodlands Association, the Maine Snowmobile Association and the Maine Trial Lawyers Association also testified in opposition to the bill, because it would have an unintended consequence that could threaten the liability status of landowners who allow public recreation on their land. Legislators agreed to modify the language to avoid that consequence.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287