FAIRFIELD — After years of fielding complaints about a series of railroad crossings that have banged up car tires and shocks, Fairfield’s municipal leaders have something to be happy about.

“Every day, I have to take a little detour to drive over them, just to smile,” Josh Reny, town manager, said about recently completed renovations of railroad crossings at Burrill and Summit streets.

For years, a series of railroad crossings in a 1-mile stretch of Fairfield’s downtown area have caused local residents to complain about the effects of the jolts they received as they drove over the badly pitted areas. The deteriorated crossings have also been an impediment to economic growth, he said.

“They’ve slowly been getting worse and worse,” Reny said. “A lot of people have had significant damage done to their vehicles while crossing them.”

Reny said there was no way to assess the total amount of damage caused by the crossings, but judging from the calls the town has received, it’s a big number.

Over the past couple of years, the town has worked with the Maine Department of Transportation and Pan Am Railways to find a solution to the problem. The repairs are the responsibility of Pan Am, but there is no mechanism to force the company to make them. The railroad has regularly patched the largest potholes, Reny said, but was unwilling to take on the larger cost of doing a permanent fix, which involves completely replacing the section road leading up to the tracks on either side.

Help came in the form of a federal program that pays money for railroad crossing closures. The federal railroad safety program considers each crossing a potential accident site, and so it pays money to communities that close them.

It’s unusual for a railroad crossing to be closed, as most of them are considered essential for travel. In Maine, there are 800 crossings, of which only two have been closed in the past five years, according to Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation Rail Program.

But Fairfield’s cluster of crossings included some redundancies, which made it a good candidate for the program.

The town chose to close two crossings, at Willow and Elm streets, which generated enough money to get a larger project moving.

Under the plan, crossings at Lawrence and Western avenues will also be repaired, and the railroad is taking the opportunity to upgrade its track and signal system at the same time.

The newly installed panels underneath the road at the crossings should last for about 30 years, and the pavement on top of it should last a decade or more.

Reny said the project schedule is between the state and Pan Am, who are paying for anything not covered by the federal funds, and so he’s not sure exactly when the other three crossings will be repaired.

“It looks like they’re coming to an end this season,” he said. “They may wait until spring to do the rest.”

Moulton said the total cost to renovate five crossings would be in the ballpark of $900,000. The figure includes another crossing on U.S. Route 201 outside of Fairfield’s downtown area that was repaired over the summer.

Reny said the benefit to the town could extend beyond the saved car repair costs and improved safety.

The more appealing drive through downtown will also help Fairfield to be a more attractive place for businesses and residents, an ongoing effort that town leaders hope will promote the town’s economic development.

“We’re going to make the town an attractive place to invest,” Reny said. He said the region is showcased to businesses by regional economic development groups, including FirstPark and the Central Maine Growth Council.

“We know those people are showing all of the area options, and one of those options is Fairfield,” he said. “We’re trying to work on the town’s reputation as a place that’s proactive. We’re forward-thinking.”

The ongoing effort includes a Main Street facade improvement program, the demolition of a series of old vacant storefronts, the creation of a new park and bridge on the Kennebec River, and the $6.5 million project to purchase and transform the historic Gerald Hotel into a senior residence.

“Sometimes that business just needs that nudge, whatever it is,” he said. “If they see we’re being a good partner, maybe they’ll take a chance on Fairfield.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt

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