Rail service from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn would cost $138 million, study says

Posted March 16, 2013, at 5:46 a.m.
This diesel rail car model by Japanese manufacturer Nippon Sharyo was provided by Tony Donovan, founder the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, as an example of the type of rail car that would likely be used in a proposed Portland-to-Auburn commuter line.
This diesel rail car model by Japanese manufacturer Nippon Sharyo was provided by Tony Donovan, founder the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, as an example of the type of rail car that would likely be used in a proposed Portland-to-Auburn commuter line.

PORTLAND, Maine — A passenger rail service connecting Maine’s two most populated areas — Greater Portland and Lewiston-Auburn — would cost $138 million, according to a study scheduled to be released Monday.

In its Smart Growth Mobility Project report, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition also will outline new funding mechanisms that could make the initiative a reality.

The commuter-style passenger rail service envisioned by the study would run from 5 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. seven days a week, year-round. Such a rail connection would represent a significant change to Maine’s public transportation landscape, which only last year saw Amtrak Downeaster train service — not seen as a commuter service, but rather an excursion service to Boston and back — extended as far as Brunswick.

The 30-mile St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail corridor that connects Portland and Auburn is owned by the state of Maine. The coalition report recommends stops in Falmouth, Yarmouth and Pownal, in addition to the two endpoints.

According to the coalition study, startup costs for the project would be approximately $138 million. The study recommends using a combination of $20 million in private investments and $27 million in state bonds, which would make the project eligible for $91 million in federal transportation grants.

The annual cost of the service would be about $3.8 million, the report concludes, and that expense could be covered by user fares and what the coalition describes as “value capture” revenue-generation techniques.

The model would involve recouping investment in the rail infrastructure by capturing additional tax revenues generated by raising property values along the rail corridor.

The plan essentially would be a transportation-focused tax increment financing program. Municipalities and private developers commonly use TIFs to shelter property tax increases — spurred by new development — from being collected by the state government, instead protecting the extra taxes for local reinvestment of some kind.

In this case, coalition officials have argued, the businesses and commercial enterprises that might naturally emerge from the new and regular population flow along the corridor could help keep the service moving by devoting portions of their additional property tax bills to the railroad. The decisions about where to route growing local tax revenues generated by property values boosted by the commuter traffic ultimately would be in the hands of the communities along the pathway.

“This is the ‘buy local’ version of transportation,” said Tony Donovan, founder of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, in a statement. “We see the benefit of investing in regional rail infrastructure, stimulating local economies and minimizing the costs of growth.”

State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, introduced a bill to authorize state bonds to fund a portion of the project, according to the coalition.

“Connecting communities with inexpensive, convenient rail access to Maine’s premier restaurants, businesses and natural attractions will promote tourism, encourage residents to drive less and is a logical next step for improving Maine’s business climate,” said Craven in a statement.

The report was funded with a $15,000 grant awarded last August to the Maine Commercial Association of Realtors by the National Association of Realtors, to be used for the promotion of what a coalition announcement called “community-based smart growth development.”

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