2018-07-27 / Front Page

Train station switches to fast track

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A proposal to bring a train stop to Kennebunk, nearly derailed more than once over the past year, are now on the fast track, with plans to bring the question to a public vote in November.

At the July 19 meeting of the town’s economic development committee, chairman Bob Georgitis said the hope is to bring a lease deal for an Amtrak Downeaster stop to selectmen at their Aug. 14 meeting. That would be followed by a public hearing and decision at board’s Sept. 11 meeting on whether or not to send the lease to voters for approval in November.

With a state-mandated lead time of 45 days before the election to have absentee ballots available, Town Clerk Merton Brown has said that September meeting will be the selectboard’s last chance to put anything on the warrant.

“We have to keep this on the front burner and make sure it gets on the ballot,” Georgitis told development committee members. “Our concern is to make sure selectmen do not drag their feet on this.”

“It’s extremely important that we get this (lease) on the November ballot and not put this off until a special meeting (sometime over the winter), so that we have 100 percent support behind selectmen,” EDC member June Huston said.

“The selectmen have let us down in the past on this,” Georgitis said. “I think it’s our job to keep this on the front burner.”

Kennebunk voters first weighed in on the possibility of a seasonal train stop in June 2014, when they approved a bond package that included $300,000 as the local match on an $800,000 federal grant, funneled to the town through the MDOT.

Plans announced at the time included placing the platform at the old depot, owned by Tim Dietz since 1992. Despite initial fanfare, the project never quite built up any momentum, despite the town expending about $60,000 on engineering plans. Part of the problem was reportedly a lack of available parking near the old depot building.

The project hung in limbo until last October, when the town’s new interim economic development director, Jim Black, presented selectmen with a long-term concept to kick things back into motion. That proposal envisioned allowances for growth, should demand warrant, and upgrading at some point from a seasonal train platform to a sort of regional multi-modal transportation hub.

Several selectmen expressed frustration with so-called “mission creep,” particularly an unknown cost for maintenance that they feared would get foisted upon taxpayers. In November, the board voted 4-3 against a request to create a special negotiating committee to work a deal with one of two or three property owners thought to be in play to host the new train stop. That effectively killed the project dead in its tracks.

In December the board voted 6-1 to reverse course and have Black, Osterrieder, and EDC Chairman Bob Georgitis, begin the process of formal site selection.

The initial report of that group led to occasionally heated debate at the February 13 selectboard meeting, ending in a 5-2 vote to have the ad hoc group — now augmented by the entire EDC membership — explore specific plans and costs associated with building the platform at the historic “grainary” property on Plummer Lane, owned since 2008 by David Gould.

At a March 7 EDC meeting, Gould’s property was announced as the presumptive platform location and a concept plan for the site, prepared by South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics, was presented to give an idea for what the new station might look like.

On April 10, selectmen met in executive session with Georgitas and EDC vice chair Heather Harris, as well as Black, Osterrieder, Town Attorney Bill Dale, Finance Director Joel Downs. The official word from Morin coming out of that meeting was that, in it, selectmen had authorized “continued examination and pulling together of details and plan specifics that will be entertained,” as well as authorizing Pardue “to act on behalf of the town in that regard.”

In an interview following the May 16 selectboard candidates debate, Pardue and Morin said the decision had been during the April 10 executive session to reopen negotiations with Dietz.

On May 3, the EDC voted to drop the Gould proposal and focus on the Dietz property as its first preference.

“There are a lot more advantages to that property,” EDC member Gary Dugas said at the May 21 EDC meeting, explaining the decision. “You can walk to [downtown] Kennebunk from there without crossing [Summer Street], you’ve got better traffic pattern, you can get out easier to go to Kennebunkport, or you can follow Factory Pasture Lane to Kennebunk.”

Dugas noted Depot Street has “better sight distances” for traffic on Summer Street than does Plummer Lane, from which the grainery property is accessed.

At the July 19 EDC meeting, Black said a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was “at the attorney’s” as Dietz and the town work to put the final flourishes on the deal. Although not final, Black and Georgitis have said the plan would see Dietz lease a strip of land along the train tracks between the Summer Street and the old depot that now houses his company offices to the town for $1 per year for the first five years and then $5,000 per year after that, with subsequent agreements to run in five-year blocks, up to 20 years.

“NNEPRA (the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority) would really like to see a term of 20 years (on the lease),” Georgitis said.

Town Engineer Chris Osterriender said the new stop would include an 80-foot-long loading platform, augmented by a 220-foot-long ramp down 20 parking spaces at street level. Meanwhile, the town will build a stand-alone 400-square-foot bathroom building, wired to lock automatically an hour before and hour after the last train stop each day. The rest rooms would be on their own septic system and not hook into Dietz’ plumbing, Osterriender said.

The EDC has ballparked an estimate of $9,940 to $16,940 per year for ongoing maintenance of the platform, bathrooms, and parking area, depending on the cost of liability insurance.

“Until something is actually built, they (insurance companies) are not willing to give us a quote on the cost of that,” committee member June Huston said.

Selectmen heard and gave a nod to the EDC’s ongoing cost estimates in June, clearing the way, at long last, to proceed.

“We allowed the board (of selectmen) to push back from the planning phase into the justification phase and got ourselves all caught up in our own shorts on trying to get out of that,” Black said at last week’s EDC meeting. “We are not clearly out of that and into the implementation phase. We are not on schedule (to see the Downeaster stopping in Kennebunk) for roughly this time next year.”

That the train station could be up and running by this time next year was confirmed in by NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn in a June 26 video posted to YouTube, following a presentation to the group by Black, Georgitis and Osterrieder, along with a formal letter from Town Manager Mike Pardue. The letter confirmed the town’s renewed interest in pursuing the station. The rail association had given the town a July 1 deadline to present a plan for moving forward, or else lose the $800,000 in MDOT funding.

“They were pleased because there has been a disconnect in communication from us and they had not heard anything in so long, except what they could glean from the news,” Osterrieder said. “Ultimately, what that board did is they sat there and continued to be supportive of the project.”

“They could have made us start all over and resubmit the whole thing,” Black said, referring to the original 2014 grant.

According to Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce, a deadline to apply for a federal marketing grant will fall “about a week” after the November vote. She and a three-member EDC subcommittee are working on that application with an eye to having it ready to go should voters approve the proposed lease.

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

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