For much more than a decade, discussions about the possibility of passenger rail service to western Maine have been happening among business and community leaders. Municipal leaders in Lewiston and Auburn have been working closely with Maine Department of Transportation and the owners of the rail lines to extend passenger rail to their communities.

Deeper into the rural communities of western Maine, the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Task Force organized a Rally for Rail in 2011, during which more than 80 rail advocates met to determine the next steps necessary to bring passenger rail to the Bethel area and beyond to Montreal. Elected leaders, community representatives and private business people were among those who attended. Since then, hundreds of others have signed on to support a plan to move this initiative forward.

Since the Rally for Rail, the Androscoggin, Oxford and Coos County Corridor Coalition has been formed. The coalition has active participation from all the municipalities, business organizations and many private businesses along the rail line from Mechanic Falls to Berlin, N.H.

A private entrepreneur from Montreal is proposing a night hotel-train. He is in discussions with the owners of the rail lines, the New England Passenger Rail Authority and the DOTs of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as the province of Quebec.

Progress is being made toward the goal of bringing regularly scheduled passenger rail service to western Maine and beyond.

Opponents of passenger rail cite the need for a bottomless supply of tax dollars to upgrade the tracks and subsidize the service. They may not realize that all transportation assets receive considerable subsidies from taxpayers, including, but not limited to, roads, airports and existing rail lines.

It is the opinion of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce and the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, as well as the members of the Corridor Coalition, that investments in rail, with the goal of returning passenger rail to Lewiston/Auburn, western Maine and beyond, are solid investments in the economic future of the region. Our communities and their taxpayers need to consider the land along the rail lines as future economic opportunities, as they consider land along our rivers. New businesses that could be located along the rail would provide tax revenue as well as sorely needed jobs.

We need to visualize the new commerce that could be realized. At one point — not too many years ago when our rivers were polluted — our communities turned their backs on them. Now that they are cleaner, businesses are gravitating toward them and community assets are being developed along the waterfronts.

In a similar vein, we should develop new thinking about the economic and community benefits we can derive from commerce created along, and adjacent to, the rail lines. Only then can we view expenditures that federal, state and local governments strategically make on rail as investments in our future.

Robin Zinchuk is executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce. Chip Morrison is executive director of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.

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