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.
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.