Hoped-for Coos freight rail upgrade seen as a difference maker

Area officials say the project would encourage more development in Berlin, Gorham and Groveton

While some dream of a passenger train stopping in Berlin on the way from Maine to Montreal, others are working on a more realistic option: upgrading the 20 miles of track in and around the city that are so substandard that it prevents freight from flowing through the North Country.

Local officials hope that such a freight rail upgrade will encourage more development in the former paper mill towns of Berlin, Gorham and Groveton.

If the federal government awards the $8.275 million grant request, the older track – 17 miles in New Hampshire and three miles in Vermont – will be able to carry 286,000-pound gross weight rail cars. That's as much as the rest of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic line and some 23,000 pounds more than it can carry now.

“In order to have development, you have to have access to move the natural resources in the North Country,” said Jeffrey Hayes, executive director of the North Country Council. “The road system has its challenges. Rail would be the best connection for commerce to Canada, to New York City, to the west – to the world.”

That may not seem like a lot, but it is in the industry standard, and it may make a difference between goods being shipped via the line and another line without a similar logjam.

“It’s a huge difference, and it would make any facility in Berlin much more attractive,” said Mark Sanborn, the state Department of Transportation’s federal liaison.

The owner of the line, the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, has not been overly enthusiastic about the calls for establishing passenger rail efforts by rail enthusiasts both in Maine and the Granite State. But the company has said it is willing to pay 40 percent of the $15 million project to upgrade that track.

Even the state of New Hampshire – not exactly a free spender when it comes to rail – has agreed to chip in $450,000.

But that doesn’t mean the track upgrade is a done deal.

The state Department of Transportation has been applying for federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants for the upgrade ever since the highly competitive program started in 2009 as the transportation arm of the federal economic stimulus program.

In the last four TIGER rounds, the money went to other projects in New Hampshire: the widening of Interstate 93, the new Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth and revitalization of downtown Concord.

This time, officials hope, it will be the North Country’s turn. It could be quite a boost in redeveloping the site of the former Groveton paper mill – once the “lifeblood of western Coos County,” in Hayes’ words – which is now being demolished.

“A number of companies are interested in the site, and transportation access is a huge issue for them,” he said.

A decision on the latest round of TIGER funds should come in the “near future,” Hayes said. In the economic development time frame, that means over the next several months.

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