May 25, 2018
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Existing rail beds are alternative to east-west highway

By Veronica Garvey Magnan, Special to the BDN

What is the problem that creates a need for an east-west highway? Or is there a need to transport tons of produce and natural resources across long distances at a reasonable cost?

The Legislature and a group of private investors feel the highway will solve the problem. However, a highway corridor bisecting the most pristine areas of the state will cut a huge swath, a raw gash through the heart of what people feel is the heart and soul of Maine’s wilderness. Are we truly ready to physically separate the two Maines we so often speak about in economic and cultural terms?

The most reasonable and affordable solution would be to rebuild the former rail beds that crisscross Maine from Fort Kent to Kittery and from Calais to Coburn Gore to move our natural resources and those of the other New England states and our Canadian neighbors up, back, around and through our state.

There are maps clearly showing where Maine’s commerce once traveled by rail. The right-of-ways exist and ownership can be established. Rebuilding railroad beds and establishing land ports where freight could be shipped in containers transported by rail, sea or land would stimulate the economy of places on the international trade routes’ crossing places.

Shipping large and bulk products by rail is already common for a number of the mills in Maine. The 124th Legislature provided funding for the continuation of a rail line north to south in Aroostook County to provide shipping for its biggest businesses. Amtrak is gradually coming up the coast and there is a renewed interest in using alternatives to gasoline fueled trucks and autos for travel and commerce. The time is right to consider railroad transport again.

The reestablishment of the rails system also would promote the continued development of our three-port strategy. The idea of moving oil, gas, minerals, produce, marine goods and lumber easily and cost effectively is thought provoking. Just as a great part of Searsport’s success is based on its rail access, connecting Eastport to a renewed rail system would help the port to find its place and grow and thrive.

Other states use their railroads much more extensively and cost effectively than we do. The rest of the world does. We can too!

With tourism as one of our biggest industries, the toll highway would be a distraction. We don’t need to provide a way for tourists to drive through us without stopping to appreciate our beautiful coasts, river valleys, farmlands, mountains and the parks scattered among them. We could provide train rides if people want to “see” our wilderness without destroying it. We could continue the “Rails to Trails” as “Rails with Trails” or “Rails with Trails and Pipelines” for year-round sports access and commerce.

The rail system would be part of the tourism industry, a special draw for our ecotourists. We want and need our tourists to come and visit for a while.

Is it too much to hope that some of the funds the Legislature just allocated to study the feasibility of an east-west highway might also be used to consider the feasibility of a revitalized rail system for Maine as part of a comprehensive approach to transportation issues? An environmentally sound and economically sustainable solution is what is really needed for the betterment of the state’s economy, its commercial development and transportation needs.

Using private investment funds to reconstitute railroads would be more efficacious than squandering valuable financial resources in legal suits over environmental concerns, eminent domain and other personal injury issues. There are serious environmental and human costs when starting huge projects from scratch.

The people of Maine want jobs and a future for their families. They will support those who are working to create a sound economy. The Legislature and the private investors must remember that this transportation solution should support our citizens’ efforts to succeed and thrive.

Veronica Garvey Magnan is a former Democratic legislator representing House District 41. She lives in Sandy Point.

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