Federal review of Brunswick train depot could provide neighborhood relief
BRUNSWICK — Opponents of a proposed $12 million train maintenance and layover facility hope an upcoming environmental review will result in the project being moved away from their neighborhood.
In what could be their last chance to effect any change, the group members have hired a high-profile public relations consultant.
Dan Sullivan, chairman of the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, said he's confident the U.S. Federal Rail Administration will conclude that the proposed location between Church Road and Stanwood Street is unsuitable.
"It will not pass because it will change the nature of the residences and the neighborhoods nearby," Sullivan said Monday. "The air quality will drop dramatically through our neighborhood. The noise is off the scale."
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said the FRA's environmental review of the proposed facility could begin sometime this summer.
Because NNEPRA is using federal funds to build the facility that will support Amtrak Downeaster train service, she said, it must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act review process.
Quinn said NNEPRA is awaiting FRA approval of the facility's draft environmental assessment, the main document required as part of the review.
Once the document is deemed complete by the FRA, it will become public and a formal review and public comment period will begin.
According to FRA spokesman Warren Flatau, the design and location of the train facility cannot be finalized until the environmental review process is complete.
He said "public comments can lead to additional environmental analysis, which can ultimately lead to revisions, if new (or) unaddressed issues are identified during the comment period."
"The (environmental assessment) is designed to assure that the agency and the public have the opportunity to take a 'hard look' at the project so that the decisions made are based on all available information," Flateau said in an e-mail.
If the FRA finds the Church-Stanwood site not viable, Quinn said it could stop the project in its tracks because there are, according to a 2011 report, no other viable sites in Brunswick.
"We have continued to review and talk about and evaluate and making sure the assumptions we have made are accurate,"Quinn said. "It's just that the other sites have a lot of challenges to the operation or causes other environmental impacts, so this was the site as being identified as preferred."
According to the report conducted by Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Church-Stanwood property ranked highest considering "its historical use as a railroad property, proximity to the station, availability and relative cost effectiveness."
"Although the other sites could ultimately be developed given sufficient additional financial resources, time, and changes in off-site and railroad operations, these issues do not appear to be resolvable in the near future," the report said.
The report also found that air and noise pollution wouldn't have a significant impact on the abutting neighborhoods, including where Sullivan and other BWNC members live.
An Amtrak official in May said that Downeaster trains only comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lowest diesel standards because it received a waiver in 2009.
Sullivan said his group disagrees with Quinn's assertions and thinks the report was biased in NNEPRA's favor because the agency had expressed previous interest in the Church-Stanwood site.
To amplify its public opposition, the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition recently hired Dennis Bailey, a Portland public relations consultant and former newspaper reporter, who previously was the spokesman for U.S. Sen. Angus King when King was governor. Bailey has also been the face of long-running organized opposition to the legalization of casino gambling in Maine.
He was also one of the creators of The Cutler Files, an anonymous website that was investigated by the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices for its targeting of 2010 independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. The commission fined Bailey $200 for violating campaign finance rules. He appealed, but a judge found that his work was not protected commentary, but political advocacy created to promote opposing candidates for whom Bailey had worked.
Bailey said he was hired in Brunswick to help expand awareness of the potential air and noise pollution the neighborhood faces.
"There are a number of avenues we are pursuing," Bailey said, though he didn't disclose any actual plans. "... We don't believe those alternative sites have been adequately looked at."
BWNA has also launched a new website at SaveBrunswickWest.com, and revealed that one of its members has met with Gov. Paul LePage.
"It's been very difficult for us to get the facts out about what this monstrosity will mean for the 300 homes nearby and for the entire town because we've been denied access to many public documents and critical data," Sullivan said in a press release from Bailey. "We were very pleased that the governor offered his help in obtaining this basic information.”
Bailey said more activity from the neighborhood group can be expected within the next month. He said members most recently met with another local group in hopes of gaining allies.
"The whole issue is that this affects the entire town," he said said. "I think the perception is that they are raising legitimate issues that the entire town should be concerned about."
Sullivan said his group does not oppose the Amtrak Downeaster coming to Brunswick, but wants a more equitable process to decide the location of the train facility.
If the group isn't successful in making its case, he said it will focus its efforts on mitigating noise and air pollution when the facility is built.
Sullivan said it's unlikely the group will take any legal action against NNEPRA because of how expensive a lawsuit could be.
"At some point," he said," we will have to come to a point and say we have done the best we could."
In the meantime, Quinn said NNEPRA is expected to meet with an advisory group in early July.
The group is continuation of one that met three times in 2011, she said, and will include representatives from the project's construction team, local and state officials and residents, including BWNC members.
Quinn indicated that while the advisory group alone couldn't change the site of the train facility, members will be able to provide feedback on the project's design.