BRUNSWICK, Maine — The Legislature’s Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday afternoon on LD 439, a bill to ban passenger trains from idling, will take place without official input from the Brunswick Town Council.
The council appears to be passing on an offer from the committee, having defeated motions on Monday to encourage the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to place a specific type of power supply at Brunswick’s train station to allow locomotives to power down for certain periods of time.
A yes vote from the council would have been largely symbolic.
“The council’s authority to tell NNEPRA what to do about anything is probably non-existent,” said Councilor Dan Harris.
“I don’t think it’s any of our business to tell them what to do with their trains,” said Councilor Kathy Wilson. “This would be unnecessary if a very limited group of people hadn’t stood in the way of a layover facility.”
NNEPRA has already agreed to install an auxiliary power unit to lessen the amount of idling.
The authority is also investigating whether to install air compressors and other additional equipment.
State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, told the council his legislation was the reason why NNEPRA previously authorized the auxiliary power units, and “not out of good intentions.”
NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn confirmed that the only way to achieve a total shutdown of passenger trains is to place them in an indoor facility, as mandated by Amtrak policy.
That could be accomplished with a proposed, and highly controversial, 52,000-square-foot, $12.2 million train shed on tracks between Stanwood Street and Church Road.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Councilor Suzan Wilson, referring to the layover facility. “Until the elephant is given its pen, it’s a distraction, a diversion.”
“This was not a diversionary tactic,” said Councilor Jane Millett, who, along with Councilor John Perreault, brought the motion to the floor. “It’s a health and it’s a safety issue.”
“I’m concerned that people are talking about mincing dollars when it comes to people’s health,” Millett later added. “That does not balance out in my book.”
Based on legislation from Massachusetts, Gerzofsky’s bill would prevent any passenger train in Maine from idling more than 30 minutes. The impetus of the bill was years of complaints about the noise, vibration, and pollution caused by Downeaster trains idling for hours in residential neighborhoods in Brunswick.
The council’s decision came after members of Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, which opposes the layover facility, spoke in favor or placing a wayside power supply at the train station on Station Avenue. The station, Brunswick West members argued, could therefore act as layover facility.
Brunswick West member Dan Sullivan said that Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains are able power down completely while plugged into a wayside power system in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
NNEPRA would be able to save money and cut pollution with a similar arrangement at Brunswick Station, Sullivan said.
NNEPRA, however, wants to place the auxiliary power supply near tracks adjacent to Church Road. The train station cannot act as a layover facility, Quinn said, largely because tracks in that area are also used by Maine Eastern Railroad.
According to Quinn, an auxiliary power supply will allow trains to shut down intermittently when temperatures are above 45 degrees, or to at least idle at a lower RPM. It would take eight to 10 weeks to install and cost about $60,000.
Brunswick West would like to see a wayside power supply that includes air compression, allowing locomotives to power down for longer periods of time.
“Trains continue to idle outdoors because Brunswick West, with Sen. Gerzofsky in collaboration with Gov. LePage, successfully stalled the project that will almost eliminate idling,” said Claudia Knox, a member of facility proponent group All Aboard Brunswick. A wayside power supply, she added, would only be a “stopgap” measure inadequate to NNEPRA’s needs.
Earlier in the night, Perreault expressed his frustration with what he said was conflicting information about the proposed power supply.
“This council is just looking for the truth,” Perreault said. “That’s all it’s ever been after — whether you can shut the stinking trains off.”
Monday’s discussion ended with a degree of animosity. As town attorney Stephen Langsdorf made a point of order regarding council rules, he was interrupted by Dan Harris, telling Langsdorf, “hush, hush.”
“Please don’t tell me to hush,” Langsdorf responded angrily. “This is my job.”