AUGUSTA, Maine — Expanding passenger rail service from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn has been a decades-long struggle for local business and rail advocates, but a bill before the Maine Legislature finally could help advance that effort.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, is hoping his bill, which has an estimated $1 million price tag to complete necessary engineering and environmental impact studies on a state-owned rail line that runs between Yarmouth and Danville Junction in Auburn, will provide the push needed to link the Twin Cities to Amtrak’s service to Boston.
The bill, LD 323, and another sponsored by Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, could help finance the expansion while putting the project in a “shovel-ready” position and in line for federal funding.
Also working its way through the legislative process is a proposal by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, that would provide funds for a portion of the construction work that would be needed to upgrade the line.
Chipman’s bill would allow for the creation of local passenger rail authorities that would be assembled by towns along the line. Those authorities, much like sewer and water districts, then would be able to borrow or bond to also help pay for the upgrades and operation of the line.
The need to connect Maine’s two largest urban areas by passenger rail has been overlooked for years, Golden said. His bill would provide funds to the Maine Department of Transportation so it could cooperate with the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to fully plan for a rail feeder service between the two areas.
“The goal is to essentially do all the studying and planning that we need to,” Golden said.
That planning would look at how many daily runs would be needed between the two cities and estimate ridership. It also would undertake engineering and environmental impact studies required to secure federal funding for the expansion.
Golden said passenger rail and the absence of a connection to Lewiston and Auburn is one of the many ways the region’s infrastructure needs are overlooked.
He said the plan would determine whether Lewiston-Auburn would need to be directly connected to Portland or whether some other type of feeder service that brings passengers to another destination on the line first would be the best option.
“We need to put in place a plan that hashes all this out. We certainly need to know what the cost of track improvements would be, and then at that point we could go out and compete for federal funding to complete the necessary upgrades,” Golden said.
The bill leaves undetermined where any Lewiston-Auburn station might be located, focusing primarily on figuring out how to upgrade existing freight rail lines so they could also handle passenger trains.
Where stations could be located would be an issue for local government and stakeholders to work out, Golden said.
Supporting his effort are members of Lewiston-Auburn’s business community, according to Chip Morrison, outgoing executive director of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.
The expansion of passenger rail through Lewiston-Auburn and into Oxford County would be one of the largest economic development efforts in state history and could transform the region’s economy, Morrison said.
“Something always gets in the way or somebody else always gets the golden goose,” Morrison said, expressing the frustration of local business people and potential commuters who have seen passenger rail expand to Freeport and Brunswick in recent years. “This is huge, and it’s hugely important for our area and the state’s economy, too.”
Golden said adding a passenger rail service is especially important for Lewiston and his House district, home to one of the largest populations of people in Maine without a personal motor vehicle or a driver’s license.
The expansion would increase access to employment opportunities well beyond the borders of the Twin Cities, Golden said. He also said the rail line would provide an important connection for visitors to the region.
Morrison said the expansion would be a key step in linking Boston to Montreal, Canada, and would open a new market for tourism and business connections.
“This really is hugely important,” Morrison said.
Golden also said that while some have been critical of the idea of expanding passenger rail, ridership figures for cities where passenger rail have been added usually exceed initial projections.
“It has proven time and again to be an economic development tool and a real boon for the cities that have train stops,” Golden said. “I think this is absolutely critical for Lewiston and Auburn but, from a state perspective, connecting our two largest urban populations is a very important step we need to take in strengthening our economy and one we have to take.”
Golden’s bill would also build upon prior studies that suggested ridership for Lewiston-Auburn to Portland could exceed the numbers seen between Portland and Brunswick.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee, of which Golden is a member, will hold a public hearing on the bill in the weeks ahead.