Maine railroad rises from the ashes with public, private help

The debate around the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway from April 2010 would sound familiar today.

Most Republicans in Maine were in a state of near frenzy over a Democratic bond proposal that would save freight rail service in northern Maine.

They called it “absurd” and “socialism.” They termed members of the GOP who were willing to let freight rail in Aroostook county die, “heroes.”

The words for Republicans who were willing to cross party lines on the bond – either out of parochial self-interest or through a genuine recognition of what was at stake – were much less kind.

One member of the Republican Legislature, on the conservative website AsMaineGoes.com called the bond “the worst ever.”

And a current member of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, then a columnist and frequent AsMaineGoes.com poster, accused a vocal Republican supporter of acting out of his own self-interest while lambasting the project as a terrible idea and a waste.

Meanwhile, Gov. John Baldacci and a coalition of majority Democrats and a handful of Republicans, many from northern Maine, hammered out a bipartisan bond proposal that included money to buy parts of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway that would have otherwise been abandoned.

An estimated 1,700 jobs were at stake and more than 20 industrial and manufacturing businesses in Aroostook were facing an uncertain – and perilous –future.

The critics were primed with the same type of rhetoric that we still hear today. They criticized an investment as an attack on freedom and were willing to trade jobs and economic development in northern Maine to score rigid ideological points.

Voters disagreed and approved the bond, even while remaining skeptical of government spending in general.

With the economy struggling, it wouldn’t be easy to make the railroad work and would take a great deal of cooperation between the state, a new private railroad, shippers and the federal government.

But low and behold, just two years later, the bold policy move and the willingness to invest in northern Maine and its people is paying off.

In 2011, the Maine Northern Railway was resurrected from the ashes of the almost-abandoned Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.

With a $10.5 million investment from the federal government for upgrades, along with the purchase of the line by the state, and a strong private investment by J.D. Irving out of New Brunswick, the rail line is meeting with success.

New jobs are being created, rail traffic is up, and the jobs that were once at risk are now more secure.

Speaking in Presque Isle last week, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said that traffic on the line had tripled and that Irving was making investments that the line hadn’t seen in the past.

And the efficiency of the line has increased. “What took seven weeks now takes about 36 hours,” Bernhardt said.

Nate Moulton, who directs the rail program for the Department of Transportation, told MPBN last week that in addition to work being created by repairs on the track, the railway itself has grown from 35 employees to more than 60, with more expected to come.

Like President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the purchase of the railroad was easy to attack in the short-term. It’s always a safe bet to predict disaster. And if things work out, nobody remembers the critics. After all, success has many fathers. Not so with failure.

It was no sure bet that the purchase of the railroad would work out.

When it comes to economic development, there never are. You do the math; you weigh the risks and the benefits; and then you prepare for the consequences.

Baldacci, who I was working with at the time, was willing to take the risk to save the railroad and the jobs that depended on it. And he was willing to compromise and twist arms to get the job done.

Democrats in the Legislature and a few brave Republicans were willing to risk the wrath of voters who were distrustful of government spending.

And now, two years later, there’s a railroad, jobs, and the policy appears to be vindicated.

Baldacci deserves the credit for working with Democrats and a few Republicans to pass the bond that saved the railroad. LePage, whose power stems from the Tea Party and its hatred of bonding and government investment, continued the work and has contributed to the railroad’s success.

LePage hates bonding to the point of irrationality, even to the point that he would put at risk job creation and scuttle economic development simply to flex his muscles. But people I spoke with inside the transportation department told me his administration has helped make the railroad work.

The purchase of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad was the right thing to do.

It saved jobs and created new ones and has provided a transportation lifeline to northern Maine.

It’s also shown how public-private partnerships can be successful.