Late last week we learned of an effort to repeal a section of the 2003 State Railroad Preservation and Assistance Act that provides that state-owned track may not be dismantled or changed until the Department of Transportation, in consultation with other agencies, determines that it “will not have a negative impact on a region or on future economic opportunities for that region.”

The recently introduced L.D. 2124 – a governor’s bill that is on the agenda of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Thursday – eliminates this language. It also calls for the state transportation commissioner to appoint nine to 15 persons to serve on a council to study and report on uses of inactive state-owned railroad corridors. If passed, L.D. 2124 would give the commissioner discretion as who to appoint to this council and could lead to a stacked deck in favor of converting inactive state-owned rail corridors for recreational trail use. It’s politically unlikely that any corridors would be returned to rail use once converted.

We believe that a feasibility study would need to be completed before any state rail line can be converted for recreational use. The study would be conducted by professionals who would determine not only the ridership potential, but also the possible long-term economic impacts.

The Downeaster’s track record is an outstanding example of the success of restoring passenger rail service. Sen. Susan Collins recently called the existing Downeaster passenger rail service “an economic engine for Maine” and praised it for “providing good jobs, supporting Maine vendors of goods and services and strengthening Maine’s tourist industry.” The Downeaster had 574,404 passengers last year, setting a new record, enhancing the mobility of our citizens and supporting economic growth for Maine businesses.

Last week the Federal Railroad Administration awarded $16.8 million to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, for six miles of additional passing track and passenger access facilities at Wells. It will enable a sixth daily round-trip passenger train to operate between Brunswick and Wells – aimed at commuter service.

We object to trails only where they may preclude beneficial railroad uses and have lesser economic potential. The benefits could address a number of issues that are not being currently addressed, such as the need for greater mobility options for the young and old and for visitors who do not want the hassle of driving to see tourist attractions in the state.

Restoration of train service would also promote greater economic development in the towns and cities that would be served by reopening of an abandoned line. It would promote transit-oriented development, which would attract millennials and families who want to live in a city or more rural area, but no longer can afford housing in Portland.

It is our concern that passage of this bill may lead to loss of the potential rail uses for which the state acquired and is protecting inactive rail corridors, specifically:

• Augusta-Gardiner-Topsham-Brunswick: This is the only corridor connecting Amtrak service at Brunswick with Maine’s state capital, with potential for continuation to Waterville and Bangor.

• Mountain Division-Portland-Steep Falls-Fryeburg-North Conway: This corridor has potential for commuter service to Portland as well as local freight and tourist service.

• Former St. Lawrence & Atlantic Line from Danville Junction to the Portland Transportation Center: Along this corridor, there is potential for commuter service into Portland from Lewiston-Auburn, and further potential for service to western Maine and Montreal, as well as potential for passenger rail access to the Portland Transportation Center from the Brunswick line via Yarmouth Junction.

At a time of growing concern over carbon emissions from cars and trucks, and emerging technology for hydrogen fuel cell- or battery-powered passenger trains that gives the advantages of electrification to non-electrified railroad lines, it is unwise to relinquish these corridors.

The Maine Rail Group advocates exempting at least these three now-inactive state-owned rail corridors from conversion to trail uses, and positive recognition of their potential for passenger uses in future state rail plans.


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