When it comes to maintaining and expanding rail passenger service, the state of Maine is at a turning point. Save the COVID-19 interlude, traffic on Amtrak’s Downeaster has been showing positive growth and acceptance since its inception. It is well recognized that rail passenger service cannot exist without governmental subsidies. On the other hand, neither vehicular traffic (roads) nor air traffic (Federal Aviation Administration and airports) can exist without public subsidies.

Politicians like to avoid the use of the word “taxes.” Instead, they use the word “investment.” So let’s be candid. Federal and state tax monies will be required to maintain and expand rail passenger service. The state needs to have a documented plan to grow the service over the next decade and beyond.

Let’s focus on “planned” passenger rail service. L.D. 227, which calls for a propensity study for the expansion of passenger rail service to Bangor, was passed last year.  Ideally, the service would use the existing right of way: Brunswick, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor.  This reaches a majority of the state population north of Portland. Included are the colleges of Colby, Thomas and Husson and a jumping-off point for the University of Maine, in Orono. Just ask the students at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, or the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston. They love the train. Additionally, Bangor serves as a hub for Canadian travelers wanting to travel south. Via shuttle bus, Acadia National Park is in striking distance. On top of all that, Bangor has become a great medical center.

While the propensity study is a good first step, the state of Maine really needs to upgrade the propensity study to a feasibility study.

Since L.D. 227 was passed, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has established a new Corridor Identification and Development Program, which will establish a pipeline of projects ready for funding – allowing them to be implemented faster and with greater coordination than before. The program will serve as a key vehicle for directing federal investments and technical assistance toward new or improved intercity passenger rail services across the nation.

To tap this sources, three things are required. Firstly, the state must have the need for the study as part of state’s rail plan. The state is currently updating its rail plan. Secondly, the state must conduct a feasibility study; Maine legislators, in the next session, must pass a bill to underwrite the cost of conducting a feasibility study which would analyze the viability of restoring passenger rail service to central Maine. The study would include demand analysis and traffic forecasts, an engineering analysis and estimation of capital, operational and administrative costs to determine whether the project is likely to succeed. The study is also designed to identify potential issues and problems that could arise from pursuing the project. Finally, the state’s governor and department of transportation must support the study.

It is time for the state of Maine to become serious about expanding rail passenger service. Regardless of the outcome in the fall elections, Maine cannot afford to pass up the economic development that will occur by expanding service. Done correctly, an increasing tax base will offset the state subsidies. It is time for the legislators to call for and fund a feasibility study to expand rail passenger service in Maine.

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