Brunswick train barn neighbors: Fears realized

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BRUNSWICK — The four years leading up to the construction of the Amtrak Downeaster layover facility on the west side of town was marked by resistance from some residents, who feared an increase in noise and pollution in their neighborhood.

Now that the 60,000-square-foot, 665-foot-long facility has been operating since November – stowing trains overnight in a cleared area that was formerly a rail yard – some say their fears have been realized.

“(They) all came true,” said Charlie Wallace, who helped lead the campaign against the train barn during the planning process that began in 2011. While he does not live in the neighborhood, he said he works there and has owned and developed property since the 1970s.

At Monday’s Town Council meeting, Wallace and another abutter complained about regular noise disruptions from train horns and middle-of-the-night trash pickups that wake the neighbors. They said the building has caused a “fundamental change in the (neighborhood’s) noise level.”

Not all complaints have to do with noise, either. In a July 4 email to Councilor John Perreault, Bouchard Drive resident Matt Miller said his house and yard smell like diesel exhaust when the barn doors are left open, against railroad protocol, for more than an hour.

The complaints, mostly channeled through Perreault, have been filtering in for months, giving residents the impression that the council has inadequately responded to what the neighborhood warned would be a problem.

Repeated complaints

Officials from the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the public transportation body that oversees the Downeaster, assured at an open house last October that the sound-proofed walls of the barn would contain noise by housing trains indoors.

But commotion around and outside of the barn are causing enough of a problem, Bouchard Drive resident Dan Sullivan told councilors Monday.

Sullivan said he is regularly jolted awake as early at 3 a.m. by noisy trash pickups at the facility.

“It is an alarming noise,” he told councilors, describing the “multiple bangs” that persist for 20 to 30 seconds.

Whenever that happens, he said, he rolls over and grabs his cell phone to send a time-stamped email to Perreault.

“3 a.m. (and) the trash guy just showed up with his safety backup beeper and crashing trash into his rig,” Sullivan wrote in a June 14 email to Perreault.

“Where was the town council five years ago when I mentioned I was concerned the trash man would be making a lot of noise doing his thing in the middle of the night? 3-frickin’-am John,” he continued.

Town Manager John Eldridge has forwarded Sullivan’s messages and others to NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn.

“I double-checked again yesterday to confirm that the issue has been addressed,” Quinn replied to Eldridge on July 11.

She told him that while zoning allows for trash collection to occur in the Bouchard Drive district as early as 5 a.m., NNEPRA would instruct their contractor to collect no earlier than 7 a.m.

But on Monday, Sullivan said he was tired of what he called a familiar sequence: making a complaint through the council, only to encounter the same or similar nuisance later in the week.

“(We’re) told (by the council), ‘We’ll talk to NNEPRA,’ and where does that get me? Nowhere,” Sullivan said.

In an email Tuesday, Quinn called the recurring early pick-up a “mix-up” with the vendor. She said she contacted the trash contractor that day to ensure collection would not occur before 7 a.m. and that Amtrak would monitor compliance.

Former state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, who represented Brunswick during the planning phases, also attended Monday’s meeting. He had no comment during the meeting, but in an interview outside of council chambers he agreed with Sullivan’s characterizations and criticized NNEPRA and the council’s response. 

“I believe the council (and previous councils) … were rolled over by NNEPRA,” Gerzofsky said. “Patricia Quinn is very convincing.” 

He added that as a legislator, one of the only ways he was able to have the neighborhood’s voice heard was through hearings on a piece of legislation he drafted that would have banned passenger trains from idling.

“It’s very hard to take on a railroad, especially without Town Council support,” he said.

Time to ‘step up’

In response to Gerzofsky’s comments, Councilor Sarah Brayman, who was chairwoman when the train barn received final permitting, recalled that the Downeaster’s expansion to Brunswick was a “split issue” that was backed by supporters of public transportation.

Yet she also admitted, “We should be stronger. I think the council should step up and be more proactive.” Earlier during the meeting, she shared the neighbors frustration with NNEPRA’s failure to mitigate noise and enforce its policies.

Her comments followed a more passionate critique from Perreault, who last month berated the council after it responded immediately to cleaning up a fish kill that caused a stink for coastal property owners on Middle Bay; he argued that Bouchard Drive residents have received hardly the same degree of action for a more persistent nuisance.

Eldridge told the council that he is continuing to look into what it would take to implement quiet zones – an idea that has previously surfaced without any definitive action or resolution – which would end train horns at street crossings, such as the one at Stanwood Street near the barn.

However, Eldridge said Tuesday, he is unsure if those regulations extend to horns sounded inside the train yard, such as when trains enter the facility, which they must do under federal law.

In addition to sound pollution, Wallace said he still has concerns over the diesel fumes emitted by the trains, which the World Health Organization has designated as carcinogenic and can increase the risk of lung cancer.

In her email Tuesday, Quinn referred to an environmental assessment by the Federal Railroad Administration that found there would be no significant impact on air quality.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

The Amtrak Downeaster train layover facility in west Brunswick was constructed last fall in an old rail yard, after resistance from nearby residents. The neighbors are now saying their fears over noise and fumes have been realized in the six months since the building opened.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.
  • Chew H Bird

    I have known Mr. Wallace for many years and am familiar with his property.

    I have seen the black residue on the windows of Mr. Wallace’s business. This residue was not occurring prior to trains being present for extended periods of time. I have also noticed the smell of diesel (which can be quite strong).

    Mr. Wallace was absolutely correct in his concerns prior to the implementation of the Train Barn. Our elected town officials completely failed to do their due diligence and protect residents of our town.

    • Rich Ellis

      I would love to get an independent, full cost accounting of the financial impact of the train station. None of the hee haw, propaganda figures coming from NNEPRA or the grown men from TrainRiders Northeast who never out grew their love for choo choo trains.

      How many travellers come to Brunswick and spend their money here because of the train. Be sure to deduct the financial impact of Brunswick people now hopping on a train and spending their money elsewhere. My bet is the outflow is way higher than the inflow of dollars to our community.

      Then be sure to include the expenses Brunswick taxpayers are now carrying to support the station… see “Facility Operations: Train/Visitors Station” in the annual budget ($120k in the last two years).

      Finally make sure you account for the reduction in home values because of air and noise pollution, as noted in this article.

      My bet is if the train were somehow shut down tomorrow, Brunswick wouldn’t lose a thing (other than the noise and pollution). I so wish more of our elected officials had shown the skepticism that Councilor Perreault did, instead of falling for Harold Hill’s pitch.

      • Chew H Bird

        Rich, I completely agree. That said, it will likely never happen.

        I love trains and they are a critical component of transportation infrastructure. However the population density and demographics have much to do with the viability of rail based passenger transport.

        I spent time in Japan years ago and trains were packed with people at all times of the day (and night in some cases). In our major cities, trains (subways and sky ways), along with buses, are packed with people traveling to and from their destinations.

        Maine is simply not set up for this efficient form of mass transit on a cost effective and traffic congestion perspective. If a car needs to be rented at the train stops to effectively do whatever, and the destination is an hour or two away, most people would simply opt to drive and avoid the high costs associated with car rentals and train fares (and inconvenience).

        I have clients in the DC Metro area. Trains are the best way to get around and traffic in that area is something many Maine residents may never experience. It can take an hour to go ten miles on a daily basis and there are paid “speed” lanes that such money out of an EZ pass quicker than you can blink.

        Portland to Boston I understand. Portland to Brunswick just makes no sense and by the time our population will support the investment whatever technology we have today will be in dire need of upgrade and rehabilitation. I suspect the average grade school student could have done the math and concluded that it would not be a wise investment at this point in time.

        • Rich Ellis

          Agree with everything you said. I lived and worked in Wilmington, DE for some years. The Metroliner that runs between Washington, D.C. and New York is a perfect example of when population density and demos can justify regional rail service. Having a terminus in a town of 22k is crazy sauce.

      • poppypapa

        Three points.

        First, I attempted to get the Brunswick Town Council to discuss, as simply an agenda item, setting about identifying the benefits to the town economy stemming from the Downeaster. They wouldn’t even put it on the agenda! They were clearly afraid to discuss the subject in public. This was in 2014, and if you still follow my blog, you can find the subject addressed in this series of posts:

        http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/search?q=economic+study

        Second, I did my own “informal study” and included it in a briefing I gave to MDOT officials, including the Commissioner; NNEPRA’s ED; and the Governor. You can find it here:

        https://www.scribd.com/document/284589130/PRAC-PDF-Briefing-13-October-15

        Third, NNEPRA’s Board had a FY 17 goal shown on their web page that read as follows: “Identify and Promote Economic and Public Benefits associated with the Downeaster”

        A few weeks back I made a FOA request for any documents that resulted from that goal, and received this response: “There are no documents responsive to this request.”

        You can read what you want into these materials, but I think it’s safe to say that the consensus is that the “benefits” are nil, and as you say, may even be negative due to suction of discretionary dollars to points south, while taxpayers cough up on the order of $10 million a year in operating subsidies. Note that NH and MA pay no part of this bill, even though they account for roughly half of the ridership as commuters.

        Why don’t you go before the council and see if you can get them to revisit the subject?

  • Bee Ben

    Crybabies

    • Chew H Bird

      Perhaps you might want to add something that contributes to the conversation?

  • 207

    Rail yard has existed on that property in one way shape or form for over 100 years. I assume Mr. Wallace did not move in before that time. What about when the trains ran at night (and they often do)? Why would I, a reasonable person, who moved adjacent to a rail yard property, not at the very least anticipate that at any given period in history rail yard activity could pick up just by virtue of the fact it’s a gosh darn rail yard. Poo poo all yee like, fact of that matter is you didn’t conduct enough (any) due diligence when you moved there.

    • Rich Ellis

      I have a historic cattle catch in my front yard. Should I presume the town may begin housing cows there again at some point in the future?

      • Rich Ellis

        Because both that rail station and a cattle catch will have just about as much relevance and the same economic impact to Brunswick.

      • 207

        So has your cattle operation been in continual operation for more than 100 years and recently experienced a large uptick in volume? In this case, you are still at fault yes for not anticipating that the cattle ranch which has been in continuous operation for more than 100 years could at some day see more cattle.

        However, if the cattle ranch historically existed and has since been say, torn down or abandoned, then in that case it is unlikely to see it returned to such use.

        We like to call this, ‘apples and oranges’. Care for another analogy?

    • getitright

      Perhaps Mr. Wallace could ring you up at four in morning when the disturbances occur so you could get a better perspective prior to running off your big mouth.

  • poppypapa

    For those who would like to see the data that Charlie Wallace presented to the town council, you can find it here:

    https://www.scribd.com/document/354311237/RSE-Sound-Comparison-July-17