Maine is at a key moment in its economic development.
We have amazing natural resources and inspiring entrepreneurs but an aging population and declining manufacturing sector. I have worked on economic development as head of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years. We represent more than 400 area businesses and organizations in 13 towns in the Western Maine region of Oxford Hills. It’s an area of breathtaking beauty and a wonderful place to live. Young people want to stay and raise their families. The community is supportive of local businesses. But Maine’s infrastructure does not support business expansion or young people to the extent that it could.
That’s why I am so supportive of passenger train expansion statewide, but particularly to western Maine. We need to build a 21st century multimodal transportation infrastructure that supports a more diverse economy.
One of the issues is connectivity. We need to make it easier for tourists and commuters alike to make rural Maine a destination for work and play. Connecting Maine’s most rural counties to the crowded economic powerhouse that is the Northeast corridor from Boston to New York would generate more tourism and more in-migration. We have not yet fully tapped into the potential that these markets could bring for export of Maine-made products.
Our communities already benefit hugely from tourism, but we could increase the positive economic impact of tourism by attracting even more people from New York, Boston and elsewhere during all four seasons. Further connecting our state to Montreal by rail could increase tourism by up to an additional 800,000 visitors per year, according to the Western Maine Economic Development Corporation. The Oxford Hills Casino has already brought over 400 jobs to our county. With an influx of thousands more visitors, recreational destinations like the casino and our scenic ski resorts could create even more jobs for Mainers.
We also could attract and retain young people to fill those jobs if we invest appropriately in passenger trains. Millennials are less likely than any previous generation since the onset of the passenger car to own and operate a vehicle. To attract young people to our state, we need to expand opportunities for them to live and raise their families here. Passenger rail would increase job opportunities locally, while at the same time increasing options for potential commuters. It’s a win-win for our rural communities.
LD 438, a $25 million passenger train bond, would start that process, leveraging important federal dollars to undertake construction on Maine’s state-owned railways. With this bond, Maine’s Department of Transportation could upgrade the tracks to support safer freight and start passenger service from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn and beyond.
It’s not just Oxford County that would benefit. LD 438 provides $5 million for Lewiston-Auburn, $7 million for the Mountain Division from Portland to the Lakes region in Cumberland County, $8 million for improvements along the Downeaster line in Yarmouth and $5 million for needed projects statewide.
$25 million might sound like too much money until you look at the return on investment. The Downeaster on the coast continues to receive state subsidies, but it has arguably generated hundreds of millions of dollars in returns on investment to coastal communities that have benefited in increased real estate valuations and economic development projects at the various train stations, in addition to revenues from about half a million riders annually. The Downeaster is an economic success story worth expanding to the rest of our state.
I am constantly thinking of new ways to recruit and retain businesses to our region, and I am in ongoing conversations with the leading businesspeople to figure out new strategies for sustainable economic growth. Without exception, business leaders in our area are supportive of passenger rail investment. They recognize that passenger trains are not merely a relic of our past but rather, an investment in our future. LD 438 represents a crucial, cost-effective investment that could build a more sustainable economy for our state. I urge the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage to support passenger trains and send this bond package out to the voters.
John Williams is executive director of the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce.