PORTLAND — Portland’s City Council on Monday night endorsed a resolution that passenger train proponents regard as the first step toward establishing rail service between the cities of Portland, Auburn and Lewiston.
But City Councilor David Marshall, who serves as chairman of the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, said the resolution would at this stage only support a study to evaluate the feasibility of developing “high-quality passenger transit service” between the three cities.
Marshall said such a service could take the form of a passenger train, or it could be restricted to a bus service. There currently is no bus service between Portland, Lewiston and Auburn.
Marshall said Portland is not committed to spending any money on the venture at this stage.
“I think this is a great step forward,” Tony Donovan, founding member of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, told the council. Donovan said his group will continue to advocate for a passenger rail line.
He said the council’s endorsement of the resolution indicates to him that there is support in Portland for starting a passenger rail service to Auburn or Lewiston.
In November, during a meeting in Auburn with about 35 residents, Donovan told the gathering that the 29-mile-long stretch of track from India Street in Portland to Danville Junction in Auburn, near the Auburn-Lewiston Airport, would need to cross four bridges along the St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail line.
He said it would cost about $70 million to reconstruct the rail line between Portland and Auburn. The state has the right to operate on that stretch, he said.
The council resolution makes no specific mention of creating passenger rail service. The resolution states: “There is a growing need for fast, economical and environmentally sound transit service between Portland, Lewiston and Auburn that will help employment, medical and entertainment opportunities within our neighboring regions.”
The resolution authorizes City Manager Mark Rees to work with the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System and the cities of Lewiston and Auburn to seek funding to advance the transit project.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said city councils in Auburn and Lewiston will consider adopting similar resolutions.
“This could be a very positive venture,” Brennan said.
“There is definitely a desire to provide some type of connection between those cities,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages passenger train service between Boston and Maine on Amtrak’s Downeaster.
“But passenger rail is a big investment and it’s for the long term,” Quinn said Monday night.
In other business, the council voted to hire Sheila Hill-Christian as the city’s new deputy city manager, a new position. She will oversee many city departments, such as police, fire and public services, health and human services, recreation and facilities, the parking bureau and the Portland jetport.
Councilors set Hill-Christian’s salary at $125,000, plus benefits. Her job replaces two assistant city manager positions that were cut in the 2012-2013 budget, said City Manager Mark Rees.
Hill-Christian, who said she is the daughter of a retired firefighter and state fire marshal, has been operating a government consulting firm in Richmond, Va.
Rees said Hill-Christian will be given a car that can only be used for city business and will receive $10,000 to help pay for her moving expenses. She is scheduled to start the new job on Feb. 4.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: