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Deal advances excursion rail plan
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
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ELLSWORTH - The Maine Department of Transportation and a local nonprofit organization have reached an agreement that would bring an excursion train to the area within three years.

The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust of Bar Harbor recently signed a 15-year lease with the state to reuse a 29-mile portion of the Calais Branch line, which was once used to move passengers and freight between Brewer and Calais.

The Downeast Scenic Railroad would offer sightseeing and dinner train tours from Washington Junction in Ellsworth to Green Lake in Dedham. Tours would be about 24 miles round-trip and last about 90 minutes.

Long-term plans also call for building a railroad museum and depot.

"The lease says we must be up and running by 2009, but our goal is to have things begin maybe in 2008," said Crystal Pace, the trust's executive director.

An economic impact study indicates the train would have 45,000 riders its first year and 72,000 riders its second year.

"This operation is something that we envision could be self-sustaining," Pace said. "People are excited. There are a lot of different aspects of this project that I think people can connect with."

The excursion train proposal was initiated by Thomas Testa, who owns restaurants in Bar Harbor and Palm Beach, Fla. The trust's board members include a teacher, an attorney, a doctor and a former state senator. Testa is the group's president.

Reusing the line from Ellsworth to Dedham would require a significant investment to improve the condition of the tracks, which have been out of service since 1985. Pace said the trust expects to spend about $2.3 million to rehabilitate the line, with money coming from donations and grants received through a fundraising drive that is now under way.

Because of those high start-up costs, the lease with the state allows the trust to pay nothing for the first five years. After the fifth year, the organization will be required to invest a minimum of $10,000 in materials to maintain the tracks.

Nate Moulton, DOT's manager of rail transportation, said the project is in line with the state's goal of preserving the tracks for rail purposes while also making it available for mixed recreational use.

In the lease, the state retains the right to develop a trail within the railroad corridor for other recreational activities, such as biking.

"This puts a rail reuse back in the corridor," Moulton said of the passenger train project. "It's another attraction for the region. It's an innovative way to use this corridor and benefit the whole region."

Moulton said the state will bear no financial responsibility for the project but will assist members of the trust as they develop their plan.

"It sounded like a decent proposal and a good reuse of this line," he said. "We want to see them succeed."

  



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