2018-02-23 / Front Page

Dissent hasn’t derailed station project

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Although a pair of Kennebunk selectmen have lined up solidly against building a seasonal Amtrak train stop in town, plans are moving forward to select a platform location and get the project done before $800,000 in federal grant money dries up.

In a June 2014 bond vote, Kennebunk voters authorized borrowing $300,000 as part of a $1.1 million plan 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).

As announced at the time, the grant money was to build the platform, while the town money would have created an adjacent 21-space parking lot. But those federal dollars come with a use-it-or-lose-it clause, and would go away if the new train platform is not ready to process passengers by December 2019.

But as time passed, subsequent property transfers muddied what was once a clear intent for where the train should stop — at the original depot, now owned by Tim Dietz.

In October, interim Economic Development Director Jim Black presented a long-term concept to scale-up the train station into a regional multimodal transportation complex, should demand warrant, saying there was not one, but three potential station sites in play. But in November, the board voted 4-3 against a proposal pitched by Bob Georgitis, chairman of the town’s economic development committee, to form a special ad hoc committee to vet the sites and launch negotiations with a preferred landowner.

At the time, board chairman Dick Morin said the vote effectively killed the entire deal dead in its tracks.

But then in December the board made a 180-degree turn, voting 6-1 to reverse course by appointing Georgitis, Black, and Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder, to begin the process of site selection, tasking the trio to return with an estimate of how much it would cost to build, operate and maintain a seasonal platform.

The initial report of that group led to occasionally heated debate at the Feb. 13 meeting of the board of selectmen, before a 5-2 vote to have the ad hoc group — to be augmented by the entire economic development committee — explore specific plans and costs associated with the second of two sites presented.

The spot, located on the other side of Summer Street from the old train depot and known in common parlance as “the granary,” is owned by David Gould.

Morin and selectman Ed Karytko voted against allowing the process to continue.

“I have to go back and ask what the purpose of this train station would be,” Karykto said. “A lot of people are saying ‘the economic value.’ But no one has been able to show me any data that indicates there’s going to be a positive economic impact. I have to tell you right off I am totally against the whole project.”

“I am going to oppose it because I don’t want to spend more money until we have clear instructions from all of the interested parties,” Morin said.

Since October, at least, Morin has been very vocal about ongoing maintenance costs of a train station of any size not yet baked into the cake, referring to the project as “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.

“We don’t have the infrastructure to support all of the unintended consequences,” Morin said in December. “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.”

According to Georgitis, Gould is willing to lease the granary to the town for $1 per year, for either five or 10 years, allowing for options to build out the site should the need arises.

Georgitis said initial construction costs for a seasonal train platform, by itself, could be as little $2,000. That would leave much in the kitty for parking and other future improvements.

What appeared to knock Dietz out of the running was his insistence that any train platform at his building include public restrooms from the beginning. That would add about $6,000 to the project, Georgitis said. Dietz also has not yet put a dollar figure to any lease deal, he added.

While the balance of the selectboard voted to let the committee continue negotiations with Gould, not everyone was willing to promise a yes vote on any final agreement.

As he did during the earlier talks in November and December, Blake Baldwin — who was an early proponent of the project before his election to the board, when he was co-chair with Georgitis of the economic development committee — pointed out that, as he saw it, the needs of the town have changed since 2013. Moreover, he said, the committee has yet to prove a truly viable train station can be built for the money already allocated, despite Georgitis’ $2,000 quote.

“It’s not clear to me that the money that’s been allocated can make the grain station a viable train stop. We don’t have any plans or any information to base a decision on. That’s up in the air,” Baldwin said.

Even so, several rose from the audience to stump for the local whistle stop, with most citing not just the economic engine a train station might presumably drive, the the ecological benefits of enabling greater use of mass transit.

“I don’t think this should be a debate because of one selectman’s opinion,” said Rachel Phipps, a member of both the economic development committee and the RSU 21 board of directors. “Public transportation is an enormous driver of economic development. We need to be promoting it.

“There is enormous potential for a transportation hub that will reduce our carbon footprint,” Phipps said. “We are so lucky to have this opportunity. Let’s build this train platform.”

“The concept is one with room to grow, and it doesn’t cost us an arm and a leg. We have some good numbers that tell us that it will be between $2,000 to $12,000,” agreed Jay Kilbourn, president of the Kennebunk Light and Power District Board of Trustees, although not speaking in that capacity.

“This will create a town with a future in real integrated transportation,” Kilbourn said. “It will reduce traffic congestion and fossil fuel use. Tourists could get away to the Kennebunk beaches, and use our lodging, and outdoor and cultural activities. I honestly believe this is a starting point. There are going to be a lot of changes in rail over the coming years.”

One of Karytko’s main complaints has been that a train station is not needed in Kennebunk, with a similar stop located just a 10 minute drive from town, in Wells. Pardue said he has been in contact with both his counterpart in Wells, Jon Carter, and Patricia Quinn, who is executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

In those talks, he said, the idea has arisen to transform the Wells station into a regional transportation center like the one Black had said could be in Kennebunk’s future, but to brand it as a Kennebunk stop, without the extra platform actually in Kennebunk.

“This might include adding Kennebunk to their advertising, and making it truly a more regional center,” Pardue said.

But in the end, it may come down to immediate economic needs, rather than long-term potential for growth. With a draft budget for the coming year in hand that will drive up local tax bills more than many may be comfortable with, yet still leaving many infrastructure needs unfunded, selectmen will ultimately have to decide if the $300,000 authorized by voters might be put to better use elsewhere.

“I think the struggle the board is having is there are so many competing infrastructure needs,” Pardue said. “The seawall reared its head, and the roads speak for themselves. We have to look at those needs.”

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

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