Feds give go-ahead for Brunswick train depot

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BRUNSWICK — The Federal Railway Authority has given the green light for a proposed Amtrak passenger train layover facility fiercely opposed by some nearby residents.

The FRA, in a report issued last week, said the depot “will have no foreseeable significant impact on the quality of the human or natural environment.”

The finding gives the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority permission to start construction of the planned 60,000 square foot facility at the Brunswick freight yard, between Church Road and Stanwood Street, adjacent to a residential neighborhood on Bouchard Drive. 

Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA’s executive director, Tuesday said the FRA ruling gives the authority the environmental approval to move forward with the project. 

“There’s obviously some things we need to do and complete, so it’s not like it’s going to happen tomorrow,” Quinn said, “but it does say that we’re going to start working towards the process of getting this constructed.”

Opponents of the proposal pledged to appeal the ruling.

“It’s our home,” Daniel Sullivan, president of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, said Wednesday. “We can’t just lay down and go to sleep. (This) is not what we want to see and we will appeal it to higher authorities.” 

The proposed $12 million facility will house three Downeaster passenger trains overnight, allowing them to power down and receive routine maintenance.

In its report, the FRA determined the facility would not have a significant impact on areas of concern raised by opponents of the proposal, including air quality, noise, vibration, visual impact, groundwater safety, zoning, and public health and safety. 

NNEPRA has said it is committed to addressing concerns about air quality and noise by preventing trains from idling outside the building, keeping its roll-up doors closed when trains are running in the building, and employing low-noise generating fans, among other measures, the report stated. 

Although the agency acknowledged the large building would have a visual impact on about eight homes, it determined that would not be significant because of “the existing lack of visual character” of the rail yard, presence of other industrial uses in the area, distance to abutters, presence of screening vegetation, and the small number of homes affected.

Sullivan said he is unconvinced by the findings, particularly that the building would have no impact on air quality and noise levels. He also said he is familiar with the argument that because only a small number of people are being affected their concerns aren’t important.

“We’re just a small group of people and they are taking advantage of that situation,” he said. 

Although the FRA report is a significant step forward for the maintenance facility project, NNEPRA’s proposal still faces legal challenges.

A Superior Court judge is reviewing an appeal filed in December by Sullivan and others seeking a review of a storm water permit issued to the facility.

And while there is no administrative appeal process for the FRA’s finding, it can be challenged in U.S. District Court, according to a FRA representative.

Quinn would not discuss the storm water permit because it is an ongoing legal case.

“We have followed the process that is required of us and we will continue to do so,” Quinn said. 

Also uncertain is what NNEPRA plans to do about an external power source for trains requested by the Brunswick Town Council. 

Concerned Cedar Street residents have requested that NNEPRA install an external electricity source so that trains that currently idle near the neighborhood can shut off their engines without losing power to their refrigeration, light and air conditioning systems.

The Amtrak engines have the least stringent air quality standards required by the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to claims that the emissions pose a direct health threat. 

On Monday, the Town Council sided with the residents, voting unanimously to send a letter to NNEPRA requesting the power source.

In a statement to councilors, resident Mary Heath urged them to take action to counter the “real and very present environmental problem.”

“I find this daily assault on my health and that of my neighbors unreasonable and unacceptable,” she said.

Quinn, on Wednesday, said the NNEPRA board decided against installing a power source on Cedar Street because it anticipated that the cost, $50,000 to $60,000, would be too expensive since the layover facility was expected to be in construction by this point. 

“To go through the work and investment to install that for just one summer was something they determined not to pursue,” Quinn said.

In the next few weeks NNEPRA should have a better idea of when construction of the facility can begin and whether it will reconsider installation of the power source, Quinn said. 

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @mcguiremidcoast.