BRUNSWICK — The Maine Department of Environmental Protection next week will hold a public meeting on a storm-water permit needed for a proposed Amtrak train layover facility.
The hearing – to be held at the Brunswick Country Club, 165 River Road, on Wednesday, March 25 – is intended to gather input on whether the project adheres to regulatory and statutory licensing requirements, according to a DEP press release.
Meanwhile, the state Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously March 13 to have the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability hold an audit review of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, according to a press release from the state Senate Democratic Office.
NNEPRA, which operates the Amtrak Downeaster service, has been trying to build the $12.7 million, 60,000-square-foot layover facility for the past few years.
Next week’s hearing will be split into two parts. DEP will hear testimony from the applicant and interveners starting at 9 a.m.; a 6 p.m. portion will take input from the general public.
In the meantime, written comments can be sent to Bill Bullard, Project Manager, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, 312 Canco Road, Portland, ME 04103, or to Bill.Bullard@maine.gov. They can also be delivered by hand to 312 Canco Road in Portland, where the project’s licensing file is available for review.
DEP last November postponed a community meeting on the proposal, choosing instead to hold a formal public hearing on the matter.
NNEPRA says the layover facility is part of a plan to boost the number of Downeaster passenger trains that run each day between Brunswick and Boston, and will prevent trains from idling outdoors on the tracks, while expanding further rail service in Maine.
Strong resistance has come in particular from residents of a neighborhood near the proposed site, a former freight yard between Stanwood Street and Church Road. They call the project ill-conceived, saying it could have major environmental and health impacts on the town. Some argue that low ridership numbers further render the project unnecessary.
“We are hopeful that the permit will be renewed expeditiously by DEP after the Public Hearing on the narrow issue of NNEPRA’s storm water management plan,” project supporter Alison Harris of Cumberland Street said in an email March 11, noting that the department had OK’d the storm-water management plan in November 2013, before the permit “was vacated on the technicality that some abutters were not properly noticed, and not on the merits of the application.”
The facility is “essential to providing Brunswick and Freeport with increased Downeaster service, and to relieving Brunswick of the noise, vibration and airborne pollution that comes from idling locomotives outdoors,” Harris said.
She pointed out that in the 18 years since the storm-water law’s enactment, DEP has processed more than 1,800 applications, but this the first for which the department is requiring a public hearing.
“We do appreciate DEP’s diligence, so that all can be assured that plans for storm-water management meet the highest standards,” Harris added.
On the other side of the debate is the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, which “continues our four years long battle with the large quasi-governmental entity called NNEPRA to prevent construction of a huge Walmart-sized maintenance/layover building in our quiet residential area of Brunswick,” group Chairman Robert Morrison said March 15 in an email.
“We continue to defend our neighborhood from the noise, diesel dust, and clean
water pollution that this huge facility will bring,” he said. “These negative effects will destroy our neighborhood as we know it.”
Morrison said BWNC is encouraged to see DEP holding its first public hearing on a storm-water permit, and happy with the state Legislature’s decision “to begin an investigation of NNEPRA’s operations and transparency, or lack thereof. We are very thankful for Senator Stan Gerzofsky’s leadership in making the investigation happen.”
In requesting the NNEPRA review, Gerzofsky said that “many concerns have been raised over the past few years about the operations and management of NNEPRA. There appears to be a real lack of trust and transparency. By conducting a review, we will be telling the people of Maine that we are listening and we are taking their concerns seriously,” according to the Senate Democratic Office.
Through the audit, “we will also be able to focus on the effectiveness, efficiency and economical use of resources provided through NNEPRA, which is supported by the taxpayers of Maine,” the senator added.
The press release noted that NNEPRA in 2014 brought in about $9.9 million in operating revenue, while its overall operating expenses were nearly $18.4 million. Consequently, $8.4 million from state and federal transportation funds were required to make up the difference.
Claudia Knox, a proponent of the layover station who serves on the steering committee of the All Aboard Brunswick group, said in an email Wednesday that Gerzofsky had suggested neither he nor Brunswick and Freeport councilors had been able to receive answers to questions they asked of NNEPRA.
“I am in reasonably close communication with Brunswick’s town councilors and this is not a complaint I have heard from any of them,” she noted. “There may be instances with which I am not familiar, but having checked with several current and former town councilors this week, all indications are that NNEPRA has been promptly responsive to their inquiries.”
The coalition’s outlook is optimistic, Morrison said.
“We feel that presenting the hard truths about the problems associated with the proposed construction of the maintenance/layover building will result in a denial of the Storm Water Permit,” he said. “Our experts and our friends and neighbors are well prepared to testify.”
An Amtrak Downeaster train idles near the proposed location of a train layover facility between Church Road and Stanwood Street in Brunswick in May 2013. The Brunswick West Neighborhood Association has opposed the location since 2011.