May 16, 2013

Closure of two railroad crossings in Fairfield could promote economic development

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — The state has picked June 3 as the date for a public hearing on the closure of two railroad crossings.

If the closures are approved, the crossings at Willow and Elm streets would be removed.

Town leaders have supported the closures, because they would attract federal funding that Pan Am Railways and the Maine Department of Transportation would use to fix the pavement and signal systems at four other crossings in town.

Town Manager Josh Reny said the closures would help Fairfield’s efforts to promote local economic development.

The federal government has a railroad safety program that gives grants for costs associated with closing crossings, because every crossing carries with it the risk of an accident involving a train and pedestrians or vehicles.

The money associated with closing the two crossings would cover most of the estimated $900,000 it would cost to repave and upgrade four crossings on Burrill and Summit streets and Lawrence and Western avenues.

The upgrade would include replacing the outdated signal systems and completely replacing the pavement and underlying panels leading up to the crossings. A fifth crossing on U.S. Route 201 also might be tackled with the funds.

Costs not covered by the grant would be funded by the state and Pan Am, although the town could be asked to contribute labor toward the projects, according to Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation Rail Program.

Reny said the resulting smoother streets would make residents happier and help Fairfield in its ongoing bid to attract business.

“The town has received many complaints from residents about the crossings,” he said.

The improvements also would be more inviting.

“When people come into your town and they drive over some really bumpy railroad tracks, it’s not the most welcoming first impression,” he said.

Reny said Fairfield has been “one of the last holdouts” in not using local property taxes to pay for repairs at railroad crossings, because town leaders took the position that the repairs should be the railroad company’s responsibility.

The current proposal, Reny said, would allow the rebuilding of the crossings to be done at no cost to local taxpayers. He said the alternative was to put the crossings on a list of those being repaired by the railroad, which probably would result in a wait of years.

Closure of one of Maine’s estimated 800 railroad crossings is rare, Moulton said, because most railroad crossings are important to local traffic flows. Fairfield is an ideal candidate, he said, because redundancies in the street system minimize the effect of the proposed closures.

Reny said the Elm Street closure’s effect would be “almost nil,” while the one on Willow Street, once known as Davis Street, could result in a detour of a couple of blocks. School buses use the crossing, he said, but school officials are not opposed to the closure.

“Typically,” Reny said, “people that live near those crossings are the ones that support them the most because it cuts down on traffic and it increases the safety of the place where they live.”

The public hearing on the closures will be held at 6 p.m. June 3 at the Fairfield Community Center on Water Street.

If the town and Pan Am agree to move forward, the projects would need to be approved by Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt.

Project planners have expressed hope to complete the renovations this season.

The public is invited to express opinions orally or in writing. For more information on the hearing, residents are asked to contact Victoria Morales, an attorney with the transportation department, at 624-3020.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com

 

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