BRUNSWICK — The consulting firm hired by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is recommending that a train maintenance facility be built between Church Road and Union Street, the site initially selected by the rail group.
The report, released at a press conference Aug. 17 and shared with the public at a NNEPRA board meeting the following day, comes as the Brunswick Town Council has found itself divided over its involvement with the site selection process.
Parsons Brinkerhoff, the New York-based engineering firm selected to do the report, ranked the site between Church Road and Union Street, also known as Brunswick West, more highly than two others it was considering for the 60,000 square foot building, which will house Amtrak’s Downeaster once it begins service to Brunswick next fall.
The firm considered nine factors when making its recommendation: availability of land, topography, hazardous materials, utility connections, residence proximity, land use compatibility, railroad operations, road connections and traffic impacts.
A draft report provided to The Forecaster on Aug. 17 ranked residence proximity as a low priority in a weighted comparison of the three sites, but NNEPRA officials said Aug. 18 that it was actually high priority.
Brunswick West ranked more highly than either the Brunswick Industrial Park site or Brunswick East, also known as the Crooker site in Cook’s Corner, on both weighted and un-weighted scales.
“None of the candidate sites can be considered to be a ‘perfect site,'” the report states. However “because of its historical use as a railroad property, proximity to the station, availability and cost effectiveness, (Brunswick West) best accommodates the operational requirements of Downeaster service and the overall development plans of the Town of Brunswick.”
Jan Okolowicz, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s project manager, also did an analysis of air, noise and vibration effects if the facility were to be constructed at Brunswick West and concluded they would have little effect more than 200 feet from the facility. The closest residences are located 230 feet away, according to the report.
The largest noise impact would come between 2 and 4 a.m., when the Downeaster blasts its horn before leaving the facility – something required by federal law. But Okolowicz said with minimal work, the impacts of the horn and other neighbors’ concerns could be mitigated.
NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said at a press briefing Wednesday that the rail group did not hire a consultant just to tell them what they wanted to hear. Rather, she said the group back-tracked in response to neighbors’ concerns and re-considered multiple locations for the facility.
“All of us were willing to say we could be wrong,” she said, “I think there are just some inherent qualities of (Brunswick West) … that make it ideal.”
When asked if there was anything she would have done differently, Quinn said she wished she had had the opportunity to speak with neighbors before it became clear that Brunswick’s local zoning did not apply to the project. The town’s lawyer, Pat Scully, determined early on that Brunswick has no control over the project because it is overseen by the Surface Transportation Board, a federal authority.
“I think that put us in a situation of looking like we were trying to do something that we really weren’t trying to do,” she said.
The NNEPRA board has not yet decided whether to accept the consultants’ recommendation, but may determine that as soon as Aug. 22.
If they do accept it, consultants will do further analyses of how to lessen the impact of the $5 million facility on nearby residents.
As the multi-month process of deciding where to locate the facility draws to a close, Brunswick town councilors are divided over how involved they should be.
The Council has not issued a formal statement in support of one site or another, although individual councilors have stated their opinions at the numerous meetings about the train facility held by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, over the summer. The item has not appeared on an agenda at a council meeting.
The council’s silence has been frustrating to residents of Hennessey Avenue and Bouchard Drive, who live close to the Brunswick West site and have been fighting the project.
“I was and am confused by the silence that I hear from you people,” said Dan Sullivan, a Bouchard Drive resident, at the Aug. 8 council meeting.
But the Council is in a difficult spot, as it has no influence over the final decision, made solely by the NNEPRA board.
In spite of that, two councilors have been trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to get the group to make a formal statement.
District 4 Councilor John Perreault, who represents the Hennessey-Bouchard neighborhood, said he has been approached by numerous constituents wondering what the council’s take is on the issue.
“All I’ve kept hearing is, where does the council stand, where does the council stand?” he said.
In response, he and At-Large Councilor Debbie Atwood, who lives on Hennessey Avenue, had been working on a draft resolution that would have the council endorse the Brunswick East site.
But after consulting with Gerzofsky and neighbors, Atwood decided to abandon the resolution for fear that it would jeopardize the work being done at the state level on behalf of the town.
Perreault then suggested to councilors that they meet to discuss the issue following NNEPRA’s public board meeting on Aug. 18 so that they would all be well-informed enough to speak about the topic. But to his disappointment, he didn’t get enough votes to hold such a meeting.
He told councilors, “whether you support that location or not, help me support the opportunity to hold a meeting … If citizens ask something of us, I believe it’s our duty to respond and let people know where we stand.”
Councilor Benet Pols agreed, and worried some councilors were favoring the desires of local institutions over residents’ concerns.
“What is the town?” he asked. “Is it made up of a bunch of institutions or is it made up of a bunch of people?”
But Councilor Gerald Favreau said he did not support making an official council statement until NNEPRA has decided where to locate the facility and then work with neighbors to mitigate its effects.
“NNEPRA is going to do their own thing no matter what and by not stepping on their toes I feel they’re going to make the right decision,” he said.
Councilor Ben Tucker agreed, and worried that endorsing one site over another not only would have little effect on NNEPRA’s decision, but would sour the relationship between the town and the rail authority.
But for residents who are fighting the project, like Anna Nelson, who acts as the group’s spokeswoman, the silence is itself a statement.
“(Councilors) were told they didn’t have a say, so they’ve backed out of the picture, when really we need for them to advocate for the residents of the town and not for NNEPRA,” she said.
This story was edited on Aug. 18 to correct a councilor’s district and on 10:30 at Aug. 19 to reflect new information supplied by NNEPRA at an Aug. 18 meeting.