BANGOR, Maine — State lawmakers killed a bill Thursday to allocate $300,000 to study expanding passenger train service from Brunswick to Bangor. The measure was defeated partly because Bangor was the only municipality to offer funds in support of the study.
Members of the Committee on Transportation voted 12-1 in a workshop session to reject the bill from Democratic Rep. Michelle Dunphy of Old Town, who does not sit on the panel. Committee member Rep. John Schneck, D-Bangor, cast the opposing vote.
The initiative died despite Bangor’s offer to contribute up to $25,000 for a study. The lack of fiscal support from other municipalities, and a desire to see the results of a pending $400,000 study into possible expansion of passenger rail service from Brunswick to Lewiston-Auburn, were the biggest factors in the bill’s defeat, Democratic committee Chairman Andrew McLean said.
“In the past, with some of the studies that have gone on, there’s been more participation,” McLean said Thursday. “With this one, it was just Bangor [contributing money]. I think some committee members were looking for more interest from more cities and towns.”
New rail tracks, McLean said, would cost $1 million per mile. The state would have to build new tracks or repair freight lines that allow trains to go no more than 20 mph. That’s inadequate when speeds of 80 mph, such as between Brunswick and Boston, are common, he said.
“They can’t take four to six hours to get from Bangor to Portland,” he said.
Bangor City Council Chairman Joe Baldacci released a copy of a letter he sent to the transportation committee saying that the city would offer 20 percent of the estimated cost — but no more than $25,000 — for a study.
Councilors “are excited for the possibilities for economic development [created by rail service] and how it will connect central and eastern Maine with southern Maine,” Baldacci said. “The rail thing should be beyond the southern portion of the state.”
Baldacci and Dunphy could not be reached after the vote. Both said prior to the workshop that the bill’s passage was critical to helping Bangor grow and meet future, if not present, needs.
Passenger rail service “connects our communities. It is a lower-cost way to travel,” Dunphy said. “It further promotes Bangor as a destination city. There is talk that if we can get passenger rail to Bangor, there is a rail service from Montreal that wants to come to Bangor.”
Advocates have discussed revitalizing passenger rail service to Bangor almost as far back as the early 1960s, when Bangor’s Union Street station was demolished. But the idea was sparked anew in February when city economic development officials pitched potential rail service as one of the benefits of converting a former car dealership at 170 Washington St. into a good long-term home for the city’s bus service.
Bangor passenger rail remains a tough sell. Critics say that it will be decades before the city achieves enough critical mass to make it feasible. The apparent success of the Downeaster service between Boston and Brunswick has sparked some interest in running rail to Augusta and Waterville. State lawmakers last year also allocated $400,000 for a study on the feasibility of extending Downeaster service to Lewiston-Auburn, with each community contributing an additional $50,000 to the ongoing study.
That contribution, McLean said, showed “real interest” from Lewiston and Auburn.
A similar bill by Dunphy also got shot down in 2015.
A copy of the latest bill available at the Legislature’s website on Thursday indicates that it sought the assessment of the condition of, ownership of and ability to access rail lines to Bangor, the long-term maintenance costs of passenger rail service, any savings drawn from reduced road usage, the likelihood of Maine drawing federal funding for rail expansion and the possible rail expansion options beyond Bangor, including 12 seasonal and excursion routes.
Dunphy and Baldacci said prior to the vote that the bill, even if it failed, was good because it keeps rail service alive as a possibility — not a bad thing as the need for alternative fuels and transportation continues to grow.
“I think the people who are pushing for economic development in eastern and central Maine are going to keep pushing for this,” Baldacci said.