With political pressure mounting to extend passenger train service in Maine beyond the existing Downeaster, the LePage administration has created an advisory group to help policymakers decide whether to pursue new routes and where.
The 13-member Maine Passenger Rail Advisory Council, which holds its second meeting Wednesday, will help the state establish criteria for prioritizing possible routes, said Sue Moreau, who manages multi-modal planning at the Maine Department of Transportation. In addition, the group will help the state develop proposals for federal funding based in part on the economic development opportunities that rail can provide for communities, she said.
“If you want to attract federal dollars, you have to have a good plan,” she said.
Moreau and Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages Amtrak’s Downeaster service, will co-chair the advisory group.
State officials also hope that committee members – who include municipal leaders, business leaders and current and former legislators – will become so knowledgeable in the arcane world of federal rail funding that they can explain to their constituent groups how the priority list was developed.
Currently, there is no political consensus about passenger rail’s next step in Maine, and local groups are pushing their own agendas because they’re eager to benefit from the economic development opportunities that typically follow rail projects. The Biddeford-Saco downtown area, for example, is being renovated with $300 million in development projects under way within walking distance of the Downeaster train station in Saco.
Officials in Augusta envision passenger trains running to Portland and Boston via Brunswick, while officials in western Maine instead see commuter trains traveling from Portland to Auburn and Lewiston.
Other groups say there’s a market for excursion trains that would travel between Boston and Montreal, with stops in Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Auburn and Bethel.
Meanwhile, many supporters of Amtrak’s Downeaster, which connects Boston with Brunswick, want to see the existing service improved, with more trips and faster trains, and they worry that creating additional routes would drain away the limited federal dollars that could be spent on upgrading the Downeaster service.
In addition, some people, like Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, argue that buses can transport people more cheaply than trains, and they want to see tax dollars spent on new bus routes rather than new train routes.
Finally, there are plenty of people in Maine who say it’s foolish to spend tax money to subsidize passenger train service in a state that is relatively unpopulated.
The new advisory group was developed in response to a bill last year that would have created a legislative task force on passenger rail. Although the bill was defeated, the Department of Transportation agreed to create an advisory group. This group is different in that it reports to the Department of Transportation and the rail authority rather than to the Legislature.
Quinn said the group’s initial task will be getting up to speed on the state’s passenger and freight rail system and how they are funded. At 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Department of Transportation offices in Augusta, the group will hear a presentation from an official with the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad, which connects Portland with Montreal via Auburn and Bethel. The meeting is open to the public.
Because the state has no money for rail and federal money is limited, the advisory group’s real role is to keep rail advocates happy without actually doing anything, said Chalmers “Chop” Hardenbergh, a Freeport resident who edits Northeast Rails & Ports, a trade publication.
“It’s a way to placate the people who want railroads without actually spending any money to support them,” he said.
But Portland City Councilor David Marshall, who is a member of the group, said he hopes it will help the state figure out a path forward.
“I am excited to see where it all goes,” Marshall said. “It seems there are a lot of different ideas being floated out there, and there is not a lot of clarity about where the state wants to go.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at[email protected]
CORRECTION: This story was updated April 7 at 5:38 p.m. to correct the title of Jonathan LaBonte.