With federal funding opening up for expansion of railways through the country, a Portland legislator says now is the time to embark on high-speed passenger train service between Maine’s largest city and Lewiston/Auburn.

“We think that is the next logical step to expand passenger rail service in the state,” said Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland.

Chipman has introduced a bill that, if passed, would direct the state Department of Transportation to finish a $250,000 feasibility analysis of passenger train service between Portland and the Lewiston/Auburn area.

The joint legislative transportation committee tabled the bill during a March 21 work session and was set to take it up again May 25 after the Forecaster’s deadline.

The study would identify potential station locations; analyze market demand, inventory infrastructure and necessary capital investment; evaluate funding mechanisms and sources; look at environmental impact; and study the possibility of connecting the service to Boston and Montreal, Canada.

The Portland-Lewiston/Auburn service, Chipman said in a press event last week prior to testimony on his bill, would not only connect two of Maine’s largest urban areas, but would also “go a long way in reducing the car and truck traffic” that add to global warming.

Tracks owned by the state along the St. Lawrence and Atlantic corridor could be used, he said.

‘The tracks are all there for the route, so we don’t have to build anything,” Chipman said. “The tracks would have to be upgraded in most cases to allow for high-speed rail.”

The tracks in Portland pass by Ocean Gateway on the waterfront and that site is included in the bill as a potential starting point, but Chipman said he is open to connecting in Portland at the Portland Transportation Center as well.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and Dick Woodbury, of the Maine Trails Coalition, said in testimony before the transportation committee last week that they favor a connection at the transportation center.

Snyder said the city is supportive of the feasibility study, but is concerned about traffic congestion and other impacts an Ocean Gateway connection would create downtown.

Woodbury said his organization also favors the western route because the transportation center is already used for the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service. The route from Ocean Gateway, he said, is not actively used by trains and could better be used as a multi-use path that could connect to other nearby trails.

Chipman said the feasibility study needs to be completed before total project cost can be estimated.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who has proposed a separate bill to study the feasibility of extending rail service from Brunswick through Augusta and Waterville and eventually to Bangor, is confident money is available to fund the expansions.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he said. “I think we can find the money between the coffers in D.C and Augusta. I am optimistic we can move forward with this.”

Supporters say there could be several sources of funding from the federal government, including the Federal Rail Authority’s New Starts program, the forthcoming Federal Infrastructure Rebuilding America Plan or President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The American Jobs Plan, which was passed earlier this year, sets aside $80 billion for service expansion and maintenance projects for Amtrak and another $85 billion to modernize public transit, repair train stations and expand train service to new communities.

“Right now, we are not in a good position,” Chipman said. “My goal with this bill is to get Maine in a position so we would be able to qualify for funding.”

Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition said “time is of the essence. We need to invest in our trains because of the opportunity the federal government is offering may never come again.”

Donovan, in testimony in favor of the bill, said the idea of a transit rail to Lewiston/Auburn has come up numerous times over the last 20 years. Chipman’s bill would finalize a 2019 feasibility study “to identify what towns may benefit from train station locations, to determine the economic impacts of developing the station sites, weighed against the costs of investing in this transportation route,” Donovan said.

The 2019 study estimated there could be as many as 800 people using the service daily by 2025 and 1,900 by 2040. Chipman said he thinks these estimates are too low, citing predictions for Downeaster ridership when that service started that were a lot lower than what they ended up being. Since launching in 2001, the Downeaster has serviced 7.6 million passengers. Ridership is beginning to rebound from the pandemic. In April there were just over 13,050 passengers, the most that had used the service since March 2020. Typically between 38,000 and 61,000 people use the train a month.

Expanding service to the Lewiston area is one of strategic initiatives of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages the Amtrak Downeaster service between Brunswick and Boston.

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