Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Proposal For Propane Tanks Sparks Debate in South Portland ME

(SOURCE:, By Kate Irish Collins)

Whether the City Council should take action on a proposed new liquid propane distribution facility before an application for the project has even been officially submitted is at the center of a debate in South Portland.

But other questions surrounding a preliminary plan to allow the NGL Supply Terminals Co. to move from Portland to the Rigby Rail Yard, off Route 1, are being asked, as well, including whether interpretation of the city’s code of ordinances should be left up to residents or paid city staff.

Mayor Linda Cohen told the Current she believes the council should not intervene and that “staff should be allowed to do what they always do – follow their normal procedures” when it comes to determining whether a liquid propane operation at the rail yard adheres to the city’s ordinances.
“At this point, there is not even a complete application before the Planning Board. If and when there is, the public process will begin,” she said.

Councilor Brad Fox disagrees. He said that it’s up to councilors to ensure that the laws of South Portland are followed by elected officials and staff alike. 

“It’s my job as a councilor to ensure the health, safety and general welfare of the people of South Portland (and) I take that responsibility very seriously,” he said. “I think that the people of South Portland expect their elected officials to pay attention to things that may (do) harm and to obey the law.”

Fox has asked the City Council to provide oversight of NGL Supply Terminals Co.’s potential move to South Portland.

As of the Current’s Tuesday deadline, it’s unclear if the company wants to move its operations to the Rigby Yard, which would include construction of six, 60,000-gallon, above-ground tanks to hold liquid propane that would come in by rail and then be transferred to delivery trucks.

The Planning Board held an initial workshop with officials from NGL in late February, and Tex Haeuser, South Portland’s director of planning, said his office has not received anything new from NGL since then.

In addition to the new storage tanks, NGL was also proposing construction of an 1,800-square-foot office building, with associated parking, as well as new security fencing.

NGL has not responded to the Current’s requests for comment, nor have officials with Pan Am Railways, which owns the Rigby Yard.

According to the Maine Historical Society, the Rigby Yard was the base of the Maine Central Railroad, and the location of the interchange with the Boston and Maine line. It was built in 1923 on the site of a former horseracing track and is commonly referred to as the largest rail yard facility in New England.

Questions about whether the NGL proposal meets South Portland’s zoning standards were first raised by resident Eben Rose, who wrote an opinion column in the April 9 issue of the Current in which he argued the plan should have been “dead on arrival.” Instead, he said, NGL was allowed to make its pitch to the Planning Board while Pat Doucette, the city’s code enforcement officer, and Sally Daggett, the city attorney, “deliberately kept” board members in the dark about a city ordinance that prohibits any project that would store gas in excess of 10,000 cubic feet.

But in a memo to City Manager Jim Gailey, dated April 15, Haeuser said he and Doucette both originally felt that the NGL proposal is a permitted use at the Rigby Yard. In the memo, he argued planning staff did not at first think the provision of code cited by Rose applied, since the product being stored would be “primarily in a liquid state.”

However, after further review, which he said was conducted in part because of the questions raised by Rose, Haeuser said planning staff determined in early April that the NGL plan was incomplete and encouraged company officials to consider a variety of alternatives.

Those alternatives, according to Haeuser’s memo, include seeking a zoning amendment or requesting a waiver from the City Council on the current above-ground storage tank capacity rules. He also told Gailey that the planning staff has encouraged Rose to pursue an administrative appeal “as a way to settle the issues being discussed,” which Rose has not yet done.

And, in a memo to Gailey, which is dated March 11, Doucette said she “carefully” considered the city code and initially did not agree with Rose’s interpretation of the law.

But, in his guest column in the Current earlier this month, Rose said one of the reasons he’s been persistent in raising the issue of whether city staff interpreted the code correctly is because “no vision delivered by a Comprehensive Plan or rising through a committee amounts to much if our frontline defenders of the code ignore it.”

Since then, Rose has told the Current that another of his concerns is for the city not to waste staff time and resources “considering prohibited proposals.”

He added that since, in his view, the NGL proposal is actually prohibited by two sections of the code, “they should have been turned away at the door.”

“If NGL wants this project, they first need to try to change these established zoning laws through the council,” Rose said, adding, “the council enacts laws codified in our code of ordinances. It is not staff’s place to invent new code or to make concerted efforts to work around them.”

Like Fox, Rose said his most immediate concern is for health and safety, if the NGL proposal moves forward.

He argued that “even the best adherence to safety codes and inspection still are not 100 percent effective,” and said that even if the risk of a liquid propane spill or explosion is small, it’s still “a risk that does not presently exist.”

Fox said he decided to seek council action after being contacted by Rose and being convinced, after a careful reading, that NGL’s proposed project “is clearly not permitted by two sections of the city code.”

“The language in the code is straightforward. This has been the law in South Portland since 1995,” said Fox. “There is no dispute that liquid natural gas is a petroleum-based product.” 

He added, “Our codes protect our citizens and I want our city staff to follow the code of ordinances as they are written. Twenty years ago, the citizens of this city lobbied the council to limit new tanks for petroleum-based products. The council adopted section 27-1517 and staff is failing to apply it.”

In addition, Fox said, “City staff can’t ignore provisions of the zoning ordinance to the detriment of the public welfare. (That’s why) it is important for the council to provide clear guidance about our expectations.”

Like Rose, Fox said he viewed the workshop and staff time spent on the NGL proposal as a “waste of scarce public resources,” which is why he asked Cohen for the council to step in.

In a recent email to Cohen, he wrote, “I believe councilors should be able to get information about how it happened. I also believe there are times when city councilors must give policy guidance to staff.”

NHDOT to Upgrade Five Portsmouth NH Rail Crossings

(SOURCE: By Jeff McMenemy)

PORTSMOUTH – The state Department of Transportation is launching a $1 million project to upgrade five railroad crossings in the city.

City officials requested the upgrades in 2014 while Sea-3, a propane storage and distribution facility in Newington, was going through a review process to expand their facility. The Newington Planning Board approved the expansion, but the city appealed the decision to Superior Court. No date has yet been set for that appeal.

Eric Eby, parking and transportation engineer for the city, told members of the Parking and Safety Committee Thursday that the DOT will put out a request for proposals on the project sometime in April.

“The city’s share will be $100,000, or 10 percent for the project,” Eby said at the Thursday morning meeting in City Hall. 

Numerous area officials and residents fought the proposed expansion, citing the substantial increase of propane carrying rail cars that would result from the project, and worries about the condition of Pan Am’s tracks.

The railroad crossings will be upgraded at Barberry Lane, Maplewood Avenue, Green Street, Michael Succi Drive and Gosling Road, Eby said.

After the RFPs are responded to, the DOT will “select a contractor and get working on the project,” Eby said.

Meanwhile, Portsmouth attorney Alec McEachern, who represents Sea-3, recently filed a motion to dismiss the city’s appeals of the facility’s expansion, claiming Portsmouth “lacks standing to appeal the relevant decisions by the town of Newington’s Planning Board,” because the city is not an abutter to the propane facility. McEachern also argues the only impact to Portsmouth of the proposed expansion of Sea-3 is to “increase rail traffic and decrease ship traffic.”

He also filed a motion to intervene in the case, which was filed against the town of Newington. 

Portsmouth staff attorney Jane Ferrini argues in the city’s objection to Sea-3’s motion to dismiss that the court shouldn’t consider the motion because Sea-3 is not yet a party to the appeal. Ferrini argues if the court does allow Sea-3 to intervene “this court may be opening the door for several corporations and associations to request to intervene in the underlying matter, such as … Pan Am, Norfolk Southern Railway and the Propane Gas Association of New England.”

But Ferrini says if the court does allow Sea-3 to intervene, it objects to Sea-3’s motion to dismiss because Portsmouth and three other towns received notice about the proposed expansion after Newington determined the project was a “development of regional interest.”
 Ferrini also contends the city is not “attempting to deprive Sea-3 of its federal” railroad rights, but rather, the city wants a “safety/hazard study of the site and Sea-3’s use of Pan Am railway.”
Sea-3 is seeking to build “five additional rail unloading berths and associated handling equipment at its existing” facility, McEachern said in a recent filing with the state’s Site Review Committee. This will allow the company to receive via rail and stockpile excess propane to be used during winter months.

MBTA Operator Keolis Hit With $1.6 Million Fine

(SOURCE:  Boston Globe - By Nicole Dungca

The MBTA fined its commuter rail operator nearly $1.6 million for subpar service in January and February that left thousands of passengers stranded.

Under its contract with Keolis Commuter Services, the MBTA can issue up to $868,850 in penalties every month for late or dirty trains, and other shortcomings.

After a series of snowstorms stretching over several months crippled the transit system, the commuter rail operation took more than six weeks to recover. The company restored full service on March 30, weeks after the last major snowfall.

Keolis officials declined to comment on the fines.

Company officials had tried to invoke a provision in its contract that would have allowed the company to avoid penalties for late trains and other deficiencies because of “severe weather.” The company’s general manager at the time, Thomas Mulligan, wrote to the MBTA that four major snowstorms had made it impossible for the company to provide regular service.

Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said at the time that the MBTA had told Keolis that instead of asking for relief from the penalties, the commuter rail operator should be focusing on recovery.

But the MBTA eventually agreed with Keolis: Pesaturo on Friday said the MBTA has decided the company could not have performed up to par for several days because of the four snowstorms.

“The operating agreement includes exceptions for extraordinary events, and if the snowiest winter in the history of Boston doesn’t meet that criteria, then nothing will,” he wrote in an e-mail.

However, Pesaturo also said that the decision had no effect on the amount of the fines for late trains.

For January, the T fined Keolis $434,425 because of late trains, the maximum amount allowed under the contract. For other lapses, such as dirty trains and stations, the T fined Keolis $273,000.

For February, the T charged Keolis $434,425 in penalties for late trains, and $434,425 for other shortcomings.

Since Keolis took over as the commuter system’s operator last July, the T has assessed $4.07 million in penalties against the company.

Pesaturo said the tally for any fines from March will be available later this month.

About 80 percent of commuter rail trains ran on time last month, according to figures provided by the T. However, the figure does not include the percentage of trains that the company had canceled under a reduced schedule.

Because of complications from the severe weather, the company could not keep enough locomotives in service, so the T allowed Keolis to cancel 21 percent of its trains last month. Keolis officials said they occasionally added trains to these reduced schedules when locomotives became available.

State transportation library closed, to be replaced with digital archive

Call it the case of the missing library.

Boston, home of the oldest subway system in the country, has its fair share of transit historians and enthusiasts. For decades, they could visit a library on the second floor of the state Transportation Building in Boston to look up the minutiae of the history of subway lines, airplanes, or highway projects in Massachusetts.

Starting last summer, workers began packing up the materials from the library. But longtime fans had no idea where they were going.

“We just saw bookshelf after bookshelf disappearing,” said Stuart Spina, a 24-year-old MBTA and railway obsessive who has been going to the library regularly for a decade.

Spina assumed the Department of Transportation was going to redecorate the room. But when the books didn’t return after several months, he decided that the state agency had closed the library, Spina said.

On Friday, a Department of Transportation official said the historic materials were safely in storage. But he also confirmed that the library isn’t returning to the second floor.

“Ultimately, the contents of the library will be digitized and made publicly available,” said Michael Verseckes, a MassDOT spokesman.

The space was being “underutilized,” Verseckes said, so officials decided to make it into a training room. Verseckes said he didn’t know when the digital library would be open to the public.

Local transportation wonks will surely be upset over the library’s disappearance from the building.

An old, undated brochure cited a collection of 25,000 books and technical reports. It also had one reference that proved a particularly poignant harbinger of the library’s eventual fate, in trumpeting a high-tech gimmick called “On-line and CD-Rom searching of databases.”

In 2010, the library was renamed for the late George M. Sanborn, the longtime librarian who had become the state’s de facto dean of transit history.

Spina, who used to visit the library at least three times a week, said he hopes the documents will continue to be accessible.

“It was pretty cool to let people flip through 125-year-old documents,” he said. “It’s just not the same with a PDF.”

1,500 young riders to get discounts on T through trial-program lottery

Remember those spirited young protesters who got arrested last year in their quest for T youth discounts?

They’re finally getting their day.

Applications are open for a trial program that will offer 1,500 young people either $26 monthly passes or $7 weekly passes that offer unlimited rides on subway and bus lines.

The T offers similarly priced monthly and weekly passes to junior high and high school students, but those passes are valid only on weekdays. Standard monthly passes cost $75 and weekly passes are $19, with discounts also available for seniors and people with disabilities.

To enter a lottery for the new Youth Passes, T riders between the ages of 12 and 21, and who are residents of Boston, Chelsea, Malden, or Somerville, must apply by April 30.

In December, the T announced it would test out two new discount programs: the Youth Pass, and another partnership with local universities.

The pass program for college students is still being developed, said Pesaturo, the T spokesman.

The transit agency expects the programs to cost $696,000 in lost revenue and administrative expenses, he said.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.