A coalition that includes rail advocates, municipal officials and the Sierra Club pushed for expanded passenger rail service in Maine on Tuesday, arguing before lawmakers the economic and environmental benefits of public transit.

The group is rallying around three bills: a $25 million bond to upgrade rail infrastructure; a bill that allocates $500,000 to study extending passenger service to Auburn and Lewiston; and a bill that allows communities to work together to borrow or raise money for transportation projects.

Their main pitch: Passenger rail spurs economic development.

“Expansion to Lewiston-Auburn is the next logical step and a potentially huge economic driver for Maine’s interior,” Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald on Tuesday told the Appropriations Committee during a public hearing for L.D. 438. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, authorizes the state to borrow $25 million for improving railroad lines between Portland, Lewiston and Auburn and also on railways statewide. The bond would also fund construction of a 4-mile long siding in Yarmouth. The siding would allow Amtrak’s Downeaster service to operate more frequently between Portland and Brunswick and set the stage for rail service between Portland and the Twin Cities.

Macdonald said extending rail service to Portland would be a significant “kick start” for efforts to revitalize Lewiston, which has been struggling with an eroded industrial base.

He said the service would also help integrate the area’s economy with Cumberland and York counties and potentially to Montreal, where efforts are underway to establish an overnight passenger train between Montreal and Boston, with stops in Bethel, Auburn and Portland.


No one spoke against the measure.

Another bill, L.D. 323, allocates $500,000 to study the potential market demand and economic benefits of connecting Lewiston and Auburn with Amtrak’s Downeaster service. It was heard in April, and passed by the Senate and House and now awaits a decision by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on whether to put the funding in the state’s transportation budget.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, the bill’s sponsor, said it would have economic impact beyond the Twin Cities.

“It will be good for the state’s economy when we connect the two large economies – Portland and Lewiston and Auburn together,” he said in an interview.

Martin Eisenstein, chairman of the board that oversees the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, spoke in support the bill. The rail authority, which manages the Downeaster service, has long planned to extend rail service to the area, he said. Extending the service to Brunswick, he said, was the first step in bringing the service closer to Lewiston and Auburn.

The train would travel on the same track the Downeaster uses between Portland and Yarmouth. In Yarmouth, there are two lines that extend to Auburn, one owned by Pan Am Railways and the other owned by the state and used by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad.


Elsewhere on Tuesday, the Transportation Committee voted 11-2 to support L.D. 247, which creates transportation corridor districts and gives them the authority to borrow money and raise funds for infrastructure and facilities, such as train stations. In an initial vote Tuesday, the House unanimously passed the bill, which is sponsored by Ben Chipman, a Portland independent.

Passenger rail expansion bills have enjoyed more success this year than in the past largely because of the support of the national Sierra Club, which views public transit as way to curb the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, said Tony Donovan, who sits on the executive committee of Sierra Club Maine.

Donovan, a Portland real estate broker who promotes commercial and residential development near transit stations, has been advocating for bringing train service to Auburn and Lewiston for years.

“The Legislature is giving us really positive vibes about making this happen,” he said.


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