The Portland Press Herald deserves praise for its Nov. 29 editorial, “Our View: Commuter rail could be game-changer for Maine.”

While the editorial raises questions regarding the merits of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition’s proposal to establish commuter rail service from Portland to the Auburn city line, the editors agree it deserves serious consideration, for it could “take cars off the road, lessening their environmental impacts and lowering the cost of maintaining roads.”

There is also the issue of mobility, or what Europeans call “social inclusion.” This pertains to the physically and mentally challenged, low-income families as well as elders who can’t or may not want to continue to drive even though there are loved ones to visit, appointments to be kept and provisions to be procured. Public transportation – buses, commuter rail and high-speed trains – is needed to ensure their right to mobility.

The above reasoning could also apply to restoring rail service to Augusta, which was first proposed by TrainRiders/Northeast and the Maine Rail Group, an organization founded in 1988 to help save from abandonment the former Maine Central Railroad main line (the Lower Road) between Brunswick and Augusta. That effort was successful, and the state of Maine owns the line, which is currently leased to the Maine Eastern Railroad.

The Maine Rail Group believes the restoration of rail service to Brunswick provides an excellent opportunity to examine and push forward with its shared vision with TrainRiders/Northeast to extend service to Augusta and beyond. The Maine Rail Group’s concept includes building a central Maine regional transportation hub east of the Kennebec River on property owned by the city of Augusta: the former Statler Tissue Co., which the city seeks to redevelop.

Major considerations include defining the services to be offered and connections, developing ridership and revenue projections, obtaining funds for infrastructure and funding for operational costs not covered by fare box revenue.

There are also the matters of parking in downtown Augusta and negotiating access in east Augusta with Pan Am Railways, which owns the line east of the Kennebec River Bridge and along the boundary of the former Statler property.

This property is large enough to accommodate a rail station and platforms, as well as parking for hundreds of vehicles. Because it can be easily accessed from Route 3 and Interstate 95, it will enable people from Waterville, Bangor and surrounding communities to take advantage of the extended Downeaster service.

Given reasonable fares and sufficient daily frequencies, there will be more than enough riders to justify the expanded service for the catchment area north and east of Brunswick, even with allowance for “cannibalization” of some present Downeaster riders who now drive to Portland or Brunswick. A regional facility in east Augusta, with “touch and go” stops of all trains in downtown Augusta, would attract riders from a broad area without adding to downtown parking and traffic congestion pressures.

Besides rebuilding the rail bed and installing signals at grade crossings, platforms would be needed in downtown Augusta and at any intermediate stops. Gravel, which has been placed over the existing track to provide parking in downtown Augusta, would need to be removed and alternate parking must be provided. This could be accomplished with funding to add additional floors to the existing city downtown parking garage, which is adjacent to the railroad and designed for such additions.

The railroad bridge over the Kennebec River, which last saw rail traffic roughly a decade ago, is believed to be serviceable with minor upgrades, subject to qualified inspection. Agreement must be reached with Pan Am Railways, which owns the seldom-used former main line track that parallels the former Statler property.

While it may seem like the impossible dream – establishing commuter rail service from Portland to Auburn and at the same time extending Amtrak’s Downeaster to Augusta – both can be achieved with public support.

Maine rail advocacy groups working together need to build public support for both projects. This will include seeking support from municipal and state representatives, the Maine Department of Transportation, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Maine’s congressional delegation and the general public, all of whom must be on board to ensure a successful outcome.

Elsewhere in the world, commuter rail – intercity passenger rail – is viewed as a government obligation to ensure mobility for all. Given the opportunity, I believe Maine citizens will support the expansion of passenger rail with their tax dollars and with their ridership.

— Special to the Press Herald

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