2017-12-29 / Front Page

Train station on track again

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Trains are not built to make 180-degree turns, but that’s just what Kennebunk selectmen did during their most recent debate about a proposed train station in town, voting 6-1 to reverse course on a previous decision to abandon the project.

In a June 2014 bond vote, Kennebunk voters authorized borrowing $300,000 as part of a $1.1 million plan to build a train platform in town in order to facilitate seasonal stops by the Amtrak Downeaster. The rest of the money came in the form of an $800,000 federal grant funneled through the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT).

In essence, the grant money would build the platform, while the town money would create an adjacent 21-space parking lot. But that grant money has a use-it-or-lose-it clause, and goes away if the new train platform is not ready to process passengers by December 2019.

And now, more than three years after voters gave their approval, and with the deadline looming, some selectmen have complained that not only is the platform no closer to reality, it is arguably further from reality as subsequent property transfers have muddied what was once a clear intent for where the train should stop. On top of that, new plans have emerged to grow the seasonal stop into a regional transportation complex — an idea selectmen predict will only add to the tax burden borne by local residents.

Those fears helped fuel a 4-3 vote on Nov. 28, at which selectmen rejected a call to form an exploratory committee tasked with vetting three potential station sites — a decision board chairman Dick Morin said effectively killed the entire deal dead in its tracks.

“I think it’s clear this process has left a sour taste in almost all of our mouths,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said at the board’s Dec. 12 meeting, referring to some unspecified “shady circumstances” that had derailed the initial platform plans.

“I think we are now backpedalling and trying to protect ourselves to some extent,” Cluff said.

“That’s the most frustrating part for me,” Cluff said. “We’re here near the end of the road and we don’t have any of the answers we sought several years ago. I’m not sure we can do it with the money we have and I am concerned with the ongoing costs.”

Among the basic questions still unanswered: What are the annual operating and maintenance costs of a train station? Will the feds require that it have bathrooms? What are the insurance costs to the town, especially of the platform grows into a transportation hub for buses, trolley cars, taxis and ubers? If it grows beyond a seasonal platform, what will it need for staffing? And what does “seasonal” mean?

The train stop was originally announced as a 2015 or 2016 project. But it was not until November 2015 that selectmen voted 6-1 to have then-town manager Barry Tibbetts sign the paperwork needed to get the ball rolling on refurbishing the old Boston & Maine Railroad Station on Depot Street. The plan then was to have the stop functioning by 2017 or 2018.

Selectmen say that from their perspective, they assumed the wheels were in motion from that point on, and that was the last they heard of the project until an Oct. 24 presentation by interim economic development director Jim Black. According to Black, there was not one, but three potential station sites on the table. Picking one, he said, should factor in an assumption that the station will grow.

What the town should try at all costs to avoid, he said, was boxing itself in by building the platform somewhere that could not accommodate a bigger building, with more parking and possible ancillary businesses, over time, should demand warrant. Selectmen asked Black to work up some numbers on the various potential growth spurts he envisioned.

But what the board heard next came Nov. 28, when Bob Georgitis, chairman of the town’s economic development committee, asked them to create of a five-person ad hoc task force to work with his group, as well as the nonprofit Kennebunk Economic Development Corporation, which he also chairs, to broker a deal with one or more of three property owners in play, in order to create a starter station capable of scaling up to meet future traffic flows.

Real estate negotiations needed to happen behind closed doors, Georgitis said, and in that respect the development corporation could function in ways the economic development committee could not. But it needed a third party, partly staffed by a minority of selectmen, to act as a go-between, to approve and funnel back to the full board, a final proposal.

By then, selectmen were beginning to run short of both patience and enthusiasm. Even Blake Baldwin, who was an early champion of the train station concept — going as far back as 2009, when he co-chaired the economic development committee alongside Georgitis — had begun to cool on the vision Georgitis and Black were now offering.

“This is quintessential project creep, no doubt about it. This stared as a very simple idea and now it’s getting grander and grander,” he said at the November meeting.

At that session, board chairman Dick Morin likened the train station to “a Christmas puppy” — something that looked “warm and fuzzy” and adorable under the tree, but would soon turn out to be more of suck on both time and money than its caretakers had counted on.

After the board voted down Georgitis’ concept for an exploratory committee, Morin announce that has basically the end of a train station in Kennebunk. However, in the intervening two weeks, selectmen say they’ve heard from a not-insignificant number of townsfolk, many of whom pointed out that the $800,000 grant “free money, already approved and ready to spend, as is the town’s $300,000 match, which has already been bonded and has to be paid back anyway. Why not spend that money, as intended, many asked.

And so, at the board’s Dec. 12 session, it was Baldwin himself who called for additional debate.

“I do think that we owe the legislative body — who, after all, voted in favor of a seasonal train stop — a more thorough discussion of the reasons behind why we’ve decided, if we do decide, to either proceed, or punt,” he said.

“We have the funding,” Selectman Dan Boothby said, expressing support for undoing the earlier vote.

“At the last meeting, I was taken aback by [hearing] all of a sudden that ‘It’s too big of an ambition.’” Boothby said. “Well, there was no ambition. They were just ideas kicking around. And I think that is good and healthy. That’s how we discover and do things. And this is already paid for by the taxpayers. We’ve already taken their money.”

Baldwin said he voted against proceeding with train stop planning out of “a sense of frustration,” because, since the 2014 bond vote, “I’ve seen absolutely no movement in terms of that desired outcome.”

“Nothing has been accomplished to my knowledge other that we spent some money on a set of plans which may or may not be relevant at this moment in time,” Baldwin said.

“But more to the point, we have not been told the story of what has transpired in the last 3 ½ years. We have no knowledge of where the money went,” Baldwin added, referring to funds spent on design plans to convert the old train depot, which had once been the go-to plan. Many on the board also seemed unclear on exactly how and when that plan got back-burnered for the expandable concept, and how additional property owners fell into the mix.

Debate at the Dec. 12 meeting took up more than an hour of the board’s 90-minute meeting. In the end, selectmen decided 6-1, with only Ed Karytko failing to fall in line, to create a three-person committee made up of Black, Georgitis and Town Engineer Chris Osterreider and tasked the trio with return in the board’s Jan. 23 meeting with an estimate of how much it should cost to build, operate, and maintain, a seasonal platform.

The charge did no authorize the ad hoc committee to negotiate with property owners, but it also did not forbid coming back with numbers on different sites with larger growth potential. To that end, selectmen batted aside a suggestion from Town Clerk Merton Brown that they first needed to conduct a vote on reconsidering their Nov. 28 ruling.

“We’re forming a different committee,” Baldwin said, noting that the new group is similar to, yet distinctly different from what Georgitis had first proposed.

And while the board did agree not to mothball the train station just yet, there were some who remained dubious, which led to some frank, and sometimes tense discussion.

“I’m sitting here really trying to understand the impetus for this train station,” Karytko said. “It almost seems like a build-it-and-they-will-come kind of situation. I don’t know what we are expecting from this train station. Why are we putting all this time and effort and money into putting a train station in? For what, when Wells in 10 minutes away?”

Karytko said he asked around to try and answer his own question, but was not impressed with the replies he received.

“I got three positive answers on why we should have a train station, and God’s honest truth, all three were, ‘Because it will be cute.’ Well, I’m not spending public money on ‘because it’ll be cute,’” he said.

Instead, Karytko said the town should focus on maintaining its roads, a need he calculated at $3 million per year to do properly. His inference — it’s not currently getting done properly.

“I, in good conscience, find it very difficult to throw something else on the plate when we don’t have enough money to fix our roads,” he said.

Morin, meanwhile, said time has changed since the 2014 vote. In addition to roads, the town now has a number of other issues to consider, he said ticking off, with Karytko’s help, sea wall repair, legalized marijuana, stormwater abatement, improvements to Route 1 north, the skate park rebuild and Lower Village improvements, as well as overworked rescue squads and an understaffed police department. With all that to consider, Morin likened any potential train station to the Waterhouse Center, which he claims was sold to selectmen as a town jewel that would pay for itself, but instead has surprised selectmen with its costs of upkeep.

“We don’t have the infrastructure to support all of the unintended consequences,” Morin said. “That is a theme that has existed in the last 20 years — kick the door open a little bit, sneak it in, and then it’s, ‘Oh, jeesh, I forgot, we have to pay for transportation, and we have to pay for electricity, and we have to pay for this and pay for that.’ Well, I’m not going to sit back and let that happen in this town.

“I will vote in favor of them bringing us some plans, but you better bring us the whole kit and caboodle, and that includes the cost of operating it,” Morin said.

“I agree, we put capital projects in front of the voters, but we never discuss the ongoing operation and maintenance costs,” Baldwin said. “It’s assumed that money will just be appropriated, but I don’t think we can continue to make that assumption. We need to build that into our decision-making process

“The Waterhouse Center is the heart and soul of our downtown and yet it still continues to be controversial simply because we didn’t talk about how we were going to pay for it on a going-forward basis. That breaks by heart,” Baldwin said. “That’s a mistake that we need to remedy.”

Still, Selectman Shiloh Schulte said selectmen should not look a gift train in the caboose.

“Well, when you have an item on the list that 80 percent of it is going to be paid for by the federal government, you really have to take a hard look at that before you throw it back,” he said.

“Building it is not the question,” Morin countered. “Supporting it for the rest of our lives is the question and what will we sacrifice? Which officer do we want to send home?” “That’s a little over the top,” Schulte said.

“That is not,” Morin said. “If there’s a $50,000 cost to run the thing, who do we want to let go?”

“I’m not going to answer that question because it’s hyperbole,” Schulte said. “But the ... “

“No it isn’t, Shiloh,” Morin interrupted. “It’s a real question. Look in the mirror and tell us, who do we cut? We run a very thin public works department, we are two people down on police and our EMS is running 24/7 with a four-ambulance fleet. Where do we cut?” After a pause, Schulte replied, “Before we get to any of those questions, we need to get the numbers for this.”

Schulte then launched directly into a motion to get those numbers, adding with prompting from Morin that the numbers would include ongoing operation as well as construction costs, and folding in Baldwin’s suggestion for who should be on the committee tasked with brining back the calculations.

“There will be no surprises. You’re expectations are very clear to me,” Osterreider said of the report to come.

“OK, because you get one more bite at the apple here,” Baldwin said. “Otherwise ...”

“I think everybody out there has to understand, this board does not want to kick the can down the road anymore, like previous boards have done,” Karytko said. “We want to figure out what to do and we want to do it now. So, whatever we come up with, we come up with.”

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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