Times Record: Red tape, green LePage (March 26, 2014)

After picking ourselves off the floor from the fit of laughter that accompanies Gov. Paul LePage asking for stringent new federal environmental review of job-creating local development, we took a closer look and found an intriguing concept.

Let’s recap. The agency that oversees passenger rail service between Brunswick and Boston wants to build a 55,000-square-foot, $12 million facility between Church Road and Stanwood Street. The agency owns the property — a former rail yard — and needs the facility to save the cost of dispatching empty trains from Portland, and to protect its equipment. Without it, Brunswick could lose Amtrak service.

Activists say the project is too close to homes and would do nothing to address noise, vibrations, emissions and loss of property value.

One federal environmental study has concluded the project would cause no adverse impact where proposed. The state has issued storm water permits; those are being challenged in court.

We endorsed siting the facility where proposed. We then qualified our support by saying there should be compensation for aggrieved property owners who could prove damages.

The governor then knocked us out of our chairs this week when he weighed in heavily on behalf of activists, alleging in a letter to a key federal official that a 2013 environmental assessment is invalid because it didn’t include late changes, and suggesting the project be moved to “other locations in East Brunswick” to “stimulate redevelopment at (Brunswick Landing).”

Such a plan could, in theory, prompt additional northbound track development that might one day expand passenger rail to Rockland and Camden.

It might, in theory, give cause for an Amtrak station at Cook’s Corner.

The best part — but even more far-fetched — is the idea it could be rolled into development of a multimodal transportation facility that synthesizes all of Brunswick’s substantial transportation assets.

Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Steve Levesque told us a freight facility nearby would be “another tool in the toolbox” to attract manufacturers to the base, helping them move raw materials and finished products easily from interstate to airport to rail to sea.

But what about last year’s 39-page federal report rejecting the idea?

Using the old base “would require construction of a new grade crossing across Bath Road, in conjunction with a steeply graded connecting track from the existing rail corridor across Bath Road into (Brunswick Landing),” the report said. “Moreover, development of a railroad storage and maintenance facility on the NAS site may not be … in conformance with redevelopment plans for the (base).”

We applaud the governor for his creative thinking, and for envisioning how to leverage additional commercial use of Brunswick’s rail assets.

It’s also clear the Republican governor recognizes the value of environmental review as more than merely “red tape.” And we might mention his letter puts him firmly in accord with the Maine Green Independent Party on this issue.

Next time his party tries to shut down the federal government, perhaps he’ll write another letter. Next time he wants to fast-track a project, maybe he’ll slow down and think.

Meanwhile, we still believe the best place for the Amtrak maintenance facility is as proposed. But we would support reopening the siting process on two conditions.

First, do a feasibility study of a multimodal freight facility in Brunswick, and how it would interface with Amtrak’s plans.

Second, the governor, MRRA and the Maine Department of Transportation need to craft detailed financing and construction plans for such a facility.

A tall task. But a tempting one.

This version, edited for print publication at 3:25 p.m. March 25, replaces an earlier version.

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