PORTLAND — Removing 1,000 vehicles from Maine’s Interstate highways will require commuter rail or rapid bus service. The question for state transportation planners is which one, and how?

Since 2008, the Maine Department of Transportation has been reviewing alternative transportation options in the Portland North Project, a study that will be used to apply for funding through the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program.

So far, DOT planners and local stakeholders have discussed six options, two involving bus rapid transit and four with train service.

On April 28 at 6 p.m., the DOT will hold a meeting at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromsom Center about the costs, logistics and preference for each transit method, several of which include new transportation stations in Portland.

The hearing is the second of three hosted by DOT, which is gathering public input before completing a final analysis and application to the FTA, possibly by this summer.

The Portland North study has gained increased significance since the state received word in January that it had secured a $35 million grant to upgrade 30 miles of track between Portland and Brunswick. The rehabilitation project will allow Amtrak to extend Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick – welcome news to those communities, which hope the Downeaster’s connection to Boston will boost business and tourism.

Work on the Portland-Brunswick project is scheduled to begin this summer, which means transportation planners will soon have to decide how to carry passengers north of the Portland Transportation Center on Sewall Street, the Downeaster’s northern terminus, which is well outside the city’s hub of businesses and attractions.

Two existing rail lines could handle the traffic, the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway and the Pan Am. Both could lead to the construction of new downtown stations in Portland.

Since 2005, several studies say DOT prefers the St. Lawrence because it would be the best fit for establishing inter-city commuter service with Falmouth, Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick. The line, which would run along Interstate 295, could also provide direct access to Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal with a station on India Street, or the city’s growing Bayside neighborhood with a station on Marginal Way.

However, the St. Lawrence option is also the most expensive, requiring either a rail corridor through Bayside or along the current narrow gauge line on the city’s Eastern Promenade. Either station would also require a rail bridge over Back Cove.

DOT estimates put capital costs for the St. Lawrence link at more than $121 million to connect Brunswick and Bath, and up to $195 million to Lewiston.

The Pan Am line would cost significantly less, between $55 million and $60 million to connect to Brunswick, and about $100 million to Lewiston. However, according to DOT studies dating back to 2005, the prospect for commuter service could be hurt by the line’s route and current freight traffic. However, planners believe the line is fit for passenger service, which the Downeaster could provide in the short-term.

The Pan Am proposal also includes two potential station options for in-town Portland: the resurrection of Union Station, or on Center Street. DOT mock-ups put the Center Street Station near the Marine Trade Center.

The Pan Am line would also take train riders west, along Interstate 95, before heading east to Brunswick via the Pan Am Brunswick Branch. The route shows potential stops in West Falmouth, near Maine Turnpike Exit 53, and in Cumberland. It would also require infrastructure upgrades at Yarmouth Junction.

The Yarmouth Junction project, estimated at $5 million, is included in a $58 million bond package that will be decided by voters in June. The project is also a prerequisite to establishing rail service to the Lewiston-Auburn region.

Twin Cities rail advocates have been critical of the state’s focus on bringing commuter and passenger service to Brunswick and other coastal regions rather than their community, which has a larger population and, according to DOT studies, residents who are less likely to own cars.

The resurgence of rail, and its sudden ability to attract federal funds, has overshadowed discussions of a rapid bus system. Express bus proposals will be discussed on April 28.

Compared to rail, the bus plans would require significantly fewer infrastructure improvements. However, logistics along the I-295 corridor could be problematic, since express service typically requires a dedicated highway lane and DOT has no plans to widen I-295.

Instead, a some proposals have buses running in the breakdown lanes on I-295, a prospect that raises questions about where to park disabled vehicles or those pulled over by police.

DOT is also reviewing other alternatives involving dedicated bus lanes on I-95.

For more information about the Portland North Project, visit the DOT website, maine.gov/mdot/portlandnorth/

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]

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