The Calais Branch has many firends. In the mid 90's Peter Dearness of the New England Southern Railroad began negotiations with the State of Maine to operate freight on the line. During that time he began to clear brush and open the line up. Until that time there had been no maintanence on the line since it's abandonment in 1985. They cleared some 90 miles of the lines 126 miles. Mr. Dearness's negotiations with the state fell through in the late 90's, but work on the line by volunteers still continued, including Dearness. All hoping that someday the obvious will be seen and the line reopened.
NARCOA members joined in and have assisted over the years in keeping the line open during visits several times of the year. In the late 90's State Reprensentative Eddie Dugay, D-Cherryfield secured $500,000 for MaineDOT to use toward custodial maintanence of the line.
MaineDOT, along with NARCOA volunteers have kept the line in about the best shape it could with the limited funds which have just about run out.
MaineDOT sprays on a two year cycle. The western end being done last year and the eastern end scheduled for this spring.
The Calais Branch is currently under an assault which began 10 years ago by trail proponents. The Sunrise Trail Coalition has been gathering support from state legislators and the governor to take up the rails and make it part of the East Coast Greenway. The ECG is a non-motorized only use and when they realized that they did not have enough support they began touting it as an economic benenfit. They then cozied up to the ATVers to bring in more support. Now they are collectively proposing a multi-use trail. They have enlisted the help of Senator Dennis Damon D-Trenton and Co-Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation to put forth a Multi-Use Trail Bond for $5M presumably to be used to convert the Calais Branch. They like to say they can get federal money, but not for motorized use. So who is driving this and what do they know?
No one seems to know where they are on all this other than thinking as well that the rail scrap will provide some huge windfall. Their goal at the moment seems to be just to get the rail up and then they will fight about the rest of it.
Senator Damon was a long time rail supporter until just before the fall elections of 2004, when he had a sudden change of heart. Funny how that always happens at those times when the number of trail supporters are counted versus the number or rail supporters.
As a longtime businessman in Bar Harbor I know the seasonal tourist market. We are simply too far north and with a very short season any economic benefit they tout is small, very small. This is simply local ATVers who want a new place to play, and that will get boring after the 5th ride, as we all know. We do not have the population base nor even the tourist base over a long enough period who is predisposed to be engaged in these types of activities to have any serious level of use.
Even snwomobile use in Down East Maine is sporadic. We do not have a consistent enough snow cover year in and year out to build any type of predictable trade in that. This year was pretty good, last year was bare as is all too often the case.
So the bikers and the ATVers will get a toy and then they have to fight over who will use it. They have no plans of how to maintain it other than looking back to the state or local municipalities, neither of which has any money, Maine is now borrowing $450M just to fund its budget.
Freight use is a possibility. There are businesses that are feeling the pinch of trucking costs, road congestion and delivery problems. On line commodities are aggregates, pulp, bio-mass material, lumber, heating oil, and fertilizer. Eastport sits there as a world class deep water port with no rail connection. The best near term use would be excursion rail in the Ellsworth area with its high visibility and high tourist traffic count. It would be something to build upon to show the line has viability. The rail is 85 lbs. needs tie work, realignment, some rail replacement and ballasting, and yes the grade crossings are buried.
A trail comes at the expense of the people of Hancock and Washington County's future and any hopes that rail can help revitalize a devastated economy, especially in Washington County. It would be a shame to see this great asset for future economic benefit wasted, but it appears that is what could to happen.
Tom Testa-A long time friend of the Calais Branch