AUGUSTA — Rail advocates told city councilors passenger train service could return to Augusta, and they even have a spot in mind for a train station at the former Statler mill riverfront site owned by the city.

Representatives of the Maine Rail Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for rail transportation, spoke to councilors Thursday evening about returning passenger rail service to Augusta through a train that could come from Brunswick, where the Downeaster stops now.

They said the passenger trains probably could stop in Gardiner and Richmond and make a quick stop in downtown Augusta as well before reaching their potential destination — a rail station they propose could be built on land the city owns at the former site of Statler on the east side of the Kennebec River. They said the train and station could be an economic driver for Augusta.

“We envision a regional transportation center on the former Statler property, which would provide convenient access to people around the central Maine region,” said Richard Rudolph, a director of Maine Rail Group and chairman of Rail Users Network, a national organization focused on passenger rail service. “We also envision people from Waterville, and as far away as Bangor and Camden, would use this service, because it would be close to Interstate 95 and Route 3.”

Jack Sutton, former president of the Maine Rail Group, said the recent return of passenger service to Brunswick shows the possibility of returning to Augusta, while challenging, is not an entirely off-track idea.

“We concede that restoring passenger rail service to Augusta is a long and arduous task,” Sutton said. “However, in line with the national and regional trends toward passenger rail revitalization and the recent inauguration of Downeaster service to Brunswick, the goal of bringing passenger rail service to Augusta becomes more realistic and tangible.”

The pair said they sought from the council an official show of support for the proposal, such as a council resolution.

“Without an expression of support from Augusta — we’re a small group of volunteers — there’s no point in us taking this story any further,” Sutton said. “That’s the only thing the folks who make these decisions listen to.”

City councilors informally expressed support for the idea, but at City Manager William Bridgeo and interim Mayor Mark O’Brien’s suggestion, agreed to hold off on a decision until next month, when councilors expect to discuss an overall plan for the former Statler location, which the city has re-dubbed Kennebec Lockes.

“I totally agree this would be an economic development stimulus at the Statler site,” said Dale McCormick, an at-large councilor. “It would probably take off like an explosion.”

Amtrak’s Downeaster trains, which initially ran between Boston and Portland, started running to Brunswick in 2012. A 52-room inn and a visitors center were built as part of the Brunswick station project.

In 1947, Maine Central Railroad offered five daily trips from Bangor, through Augusta, to Portland, where connections could be made to Boston.

The most recent, one-time passenger train trip in the area was a Maine Rail Group-chartered train ride from Brunswick to Hallowell in 2008.

The two rail advocates noted passenger rail would require federal government subsidy, as does the highway system for cars and trucks.

The pair said they don’t have all the financial questions answered, but they said a federal planning grant could be sought to begin the process of seeking to return passenger trains to Augusta.

They said track in the area is generally in good condition and could take trains going up to 60 mph, but they would need to be assessed before trains are used on them again. They noted the Kennebec River Rail Trail, which runs alongside the tracks from Augusta to Gardiner, was designed not to interfere with future rail use.

Rudolph noted tracks in downtown Augusta were covered in recent years with gravel to provide more space for parking. He said as part of the project, another deck or two could be added to the city’s downtown parking garage to make up for parking that would be lost if train service were to return to downtown Augusta.

He said the railroad bridge over the Kennebec River in Augusta was designed and built for double tracks, but one track has been removed. He said the remaining tracks are believed to be serviceable but would need to be upgraded. A freight train used the bridge as recently as 2000.

Cecil Munson, an at-large councilor, said he thinks returning passenger train service to Augusta is a good idea, and he hopes it goes somewhere. Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron also said he favors the city issuing a resolution in support of the idea.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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