Gov. Paul LePage’s surprise, last-minute decision to weigh in on a proposed train facility in Brunswick is adding a new twist to the debate over a project important to the operators of the Downeaster train service but reviled by some would-be neighbors.
The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to decide soon whether to order a more comprehensive environmental impact study of the proposal to build a 55,000-square-foot maintenance and layover facility about a half-mile from the Amtrak station in downtown Brunswick.
The public comment period on the assessment closed in October. But LePage recently sent a letter to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo echoing many of the concerns raised by local residents who say the idling trains will create noise and pollution.
LePage questioned the impacts on the local community, the accuracy and transparency of the review, and whether other sites closer to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station would better benefit the local economy.
“In light of all these concerns I believe this process requires a significant and thorough review that ensures a rational, open, objective and transparent process for MLF (maintenance and layover facility) siting,” LePage wrote.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority wants to build the 655-foot-long building between Church and Stanwood streets in order to house up to three trains, especially overnight between the late-night and early morning scheduled runs. A citizens group opposed to the proposal’s location disputes the authority’s environmental assessment that noise, pollution and vibrations from the $12 million facility would be within federal limits.
The LePage request was unusual coming from an administration that frequently pushes for less federal involvement in Maine matters – not more – and that is perceived by critics as placing business interests above environmental concerns.
But members of the group Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, which opposes the project, as well as a vocal project critic, state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, have met with LePage or other administration officials numerous times in hopes of gaining his support for an alternate site.
“We did ask him to weigh in specifically on this,” said Dennis Bailey, a Portland-based spokesman for the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition. “And yes, we think it helps.”
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the passenger rail authority, which operates Amtrak’s Downeaster service between Brunswick and Boston, said she did not know why LePage chose to send the letter at this stage. But Quinn defended the process so far.
“From our perspective, we have done everything required and more at this point,” Quinn said Friday afternoon. “We have done a lot of studies and public outreach and have had an advisory group. I feel it’s been a collaborative and open process, and we have tried to address as many concerns as we can.”
Although most of LePage’s letter focused on potential impacts of the West Brunswick project, LePage closed with several paragraphs focused on alternate sites on the town’s eastern side closer to the former naval air station, now called Brunswick Landing.
LePage has made redevelopment of the former Navy base – now operated by the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority – a major focus in recent months, causing friction between his administration and some local officials in Brunswick. And the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition has been pushing to locate the train layover and maintenance facility either on or near Brunswick Landing. There are rail lines leading to the former base, but they would likely need to be upgraded or rerouted if the facility were sited there.
“I am committed to supporting projects that will stimulate economic growth, including the redevelopment of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, which would benefit directly from alternative MLF siting in East Brunswick,” LePage wrote.
Steven Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, could not be reached for comment late last week. However, Levesque told the Brunswick Times Record newspaper last week that the LePage administration had not contacted him about a potential siting on the former base. He acknowledged that a multimodal train facility would likely benefit the businesses there.
Quinn said the rail authority considered but rejected those alternative sites.
“At this point, I don’t believe we feel there are any other sites in the area that would support our operations,” Quinn said.
It was unclear what impact, if any, LePage’s letter could have on the Federal Railroad Administration’s decision on whether to accept the rail authority’s environmental study or order a more comprehensive and costly review. Parties involved in the dispute said a decision could come at any time, although an FRA spokesman declined to provide a specific timeline.
“The Federal Railroad Administration is in receipt of Governor LePage’s letter and we will reply directly with a written response,” said spokesman Kevin Thompson. “The Federal Railroad Administration takes our responsibility under the National Environmental Policy Act very seriously and we will consider the concerns Governor LePage has pointed out seriously as well.”
Meanwhile, on April 7 the Brunswick Town Council will consider a petition from the neighborhood group to send a letter to the FRA taking a position on whether additional reviews are needed.
The last time the council weighed in on the issue was in August 2011, when several councilors wrote a letter urging the rail authority to work with the town and neighbors to resolve concerns. But even that non-declarative letter fueled tension among council members divided over the suitability of the site.
Council Chairman Benet Pols said he was unsure what the council will do, but suggested LePage’s recent letter could trump anything the Town Council sends. Pols also said he had been unaware the governor planned to weigh in on the issue.
Dan Sullivan, chairman of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, insisted that he and other group members are not opposed to the train service, only the facility’s location. Sullivan said he believes recent changes in leadership in Brunswick – including the departure of Town Manager Gary Brown – have changed the dynamics of the debate locally.
“With Gary Brown gone and a couple of other councilors, the tide has changed quite a bit,” Sullivan said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: