AUGUSTA — From the outset of Tuesday’s Maine passenger rail meeting, Richard Rudolph, of the Maine Rail Group, was clear about what he wanted — support to form a stakeholders group charged with doing whatever it can to return passenger rail service to central Maine, particularly by identifying the potential economic benefits.

At the close of the three-hour summit that drew business and economic development officials from across central Maine and beyond, he said he felt certain he had gotten the support he was looking for.

But that might be the easiest accomplishment on what promises to be a complicated journey.

For as clearly as Rudolph and Jack Sutton, also of the Maine Rail Group, can see the economic development promise of passenger rail service, others can see hurdles, and chief among them is the difficulty in securing funds for transportation infrastructure that’s costly to build and maintain.

Passenger rail service, in the form of the Downeaster, connects coastal Maine cities and towns from Brunswick south to Boston with daily round-trip service. State lawmakers have approved $400,000 in funding, matched by $50,000 each from Lewiston and Auburn, to examine the economic effects of a passenger rail line that links those communities to Portland.

While city officials in both Augusta and Waterville have voted to show their support to consider the return of rail service to those cities, that’s only a very early step.

“The people in Lewiston and Auburn already have money to look at this,” Rudolph said. “We’re better off having a more focused group look at train service to Augusta and beyond, maybe to Bangor, and to Rockland, too, if they want.”

He said he’s not interested in pitting communities interested in rail service against each other.

“I want to see all boats rise together,” he said.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, gave a brief update.

“Last year was the first year that ridership was down,” Quinn said, attributing that decline to bad weather and construction caused 550 trains to be canceled. Also contributing to lower ridership numbers was the historic drop in the price of gasoline, she said. When gas prices go down, ridership softens.

“But now,” she said, “ridership is increasing, on-time performance is increasing and ridership satisfaction is up.”

In an interview, Quinn said more delays are expected later this year as a construction project to replace ties is anticipated to interrupt service for about six weeks from mid-October to Thanksgiving. But when it’s complete, the Downeaster will be able to add a sixth round trip between Maine and Boston.

To the group assembled at the summit, she said she also was serving as the group’s reality check.

“It takes a lot of time, effort and money and people to ride trains,” she said.

For the first time since the Downeaster started operating in 2001, she said, the Downeaster and NNEPRA is now facing organized opposition.

“It’s important not to put what we have done in jeopardy,” she said.

The authority, which was created by the Legislature in 1995, has drawn criticism from residents in Brunswick, where an Amtrak layover facility was proposed where trains could be parked overnight. Residents unsuccessfully challenged the plan on grounds that it would be noisy and disruptive to the residential neighborhood the facility would border.

A little more than a year ago, a legislative committee voted unanimously to seek an audit of NNEPRA by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, in response to concerns raised by critics of the agency’s transparency. The quasi-governmental organization receives $10 million in taxpayer funds annually; $2 million comes from the state of Maine.

Quinn said she’s spent a lot of time in a lot of meetings held by groups interested in expanding rail service.

“You have to bring something to the table other than random thoughts,” she said. “It’s not an inexpensive business. You have to have a goal. You have to know who is going to ride the train. Where will they go? When will they go? It’s a volume business, and you have to have critical mass.”

Leaders at chambers of commerce and economic development organizations identified a wide range of possible economic opportunities to bringing rail service to central Maine, including additional shopping and tourism opportunities, transportation to health care facilities, transportation to colleges and universities, and visits to friends and family. They also see potential in the twin demographic trends affecting Maine — older residents wishing to give up their cars and younger residents, in the millennial generation, not wishing to own cars or drive them.

Patrick Wright, economic development coordinator for Gardiner, injected this note of caution: “In my experience in community and economic development, I don’t see train service as the big fix. It doesn’t create economic development; it reflects it. So other strategies you have will work hand in glove with rail service.”

“It doesn’t matter which route is chosen,” Sutton said. “The important thing is to get a system up and running as fast as possible.”

Decisions such as those involved in running a line and managing passengers can’t be made individually or in a vacuum, he said. If Lewiston and Auburn are successful in securing rail service, he said, it will bring along the other projects.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

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Twitter: @JLowellKJ