Establishing passenger rail service between Portland and Westbrook could reduce traffic congestion and move people faster than buses can, but doing so would not be cheap, according to a report released Tuesday.

The feasibility study done for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority concluded that the proposed rail service could utilize existing tracks to alleviate rush hour traffic between the two cities and provide a faster alternative to bus service.

“Something like that would definitely be a game-changer for the region,” said Patricia Quinn, the rail authority’s executive director.

The rail service would require significant infrastructure improvements at an estimated cost of $70.8 million in addition to vehicle costs of $24 million to $42.6 million, depending on the type of train used and the frequency of service. Operation and maintenance would cost between $7 million and $13 million annually, the study estimates.

Quinn said the study is intended as a discussion-starter, and that no specific funding plan for the project has been determined. She said such a project likely would require private capital as well as local, state and federal dollars.

Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, said the rail proposal is ambitious but worth exploring to see if it’s possible. As the Portland area’s popularity continues to grow, traffic congestion has become a pressing issue, she said.

“Both Portland and Westbrook are seeing significant growth, and a passenger rail between the two would provide easier, faster connectivity – serving businesses, their employees and their customers,” Hentzel said. “Having transportation options as well as traffic-free commutes are attractive aspects for businesses and workers alike who are making decisions as to where to call home.”

Based on an analysis of estimated weekday ridership figures provided in the study, the cheapest possible ticket price to fully cover the service’s operational costs would be about $12.50 per trip, not including weekend revenue.

However, Quinn said the likely ticket price would be closer to $2. Few passenger rail lines in the United States charge sufficiently high ticket prices to cover their operational costs, with the vast majority relying on government subsidies to make up the shortfall.

The proposed rail corridor runs from Commercial Street near Portland’s Old Port to the Frenchtown neighborhood near Main Street in downtown Westbrook. At least two additional stations would be located along the corridor – one at the planned Rock Row mixed-use development near Larrabee Road in Westbrook, and one at the existing Portland Transportation Center at Thompson’s Point.

Quinn said the developer of Rock Row, Massachusetts-based Waterstone Properties Group, approached the rail authority about a year ago to discuss the possibility of a passenger rail line connecting Rock Row and Thompson’s Point. From there, the discussion evolved into the current proposal, she said, which would involve between five and six miles of track connecting the two cities’ downtown areas.

“We agreed that it would be at least worth exploring,” Quinn said.

The majority of the proposed rail corridor’s alignment consists of multiple segments of existing tracks owned and operated by Pan Am Railways. An optional three-quarter-mile section of additional track could be built at the Portland end of the corridor to bring service closer to the Old Port, the study says.

Much of the required land on the Portland side is privately owned. Another parcel identified as a potential parking area is owned by the city.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings has no particular objection to the proposed rail service, but said that many conditions would have to be met for it to become a reality.

The private landowners would have to agree to sell their property, state and federal funds would have to be procured, and city officials most likely would have to approve the project following a public hearing process.

“By nature of my job, I have to be realistic about what can be done,” Jennings said. “The city can’t just magically make this happen.”

Still, Jennings said Portland officials are always open to new and creative proposals.

“Obviously it’s a very interesting idea, but it does have some challenges,” he said.

MAJOR CONSTRUCTION

Significant infrastructure development would be required for the project, including track improvements, stations and platforms, communications and signal systems improvements, and a new overhead bridge that would carry West Commercial Street traffic over the proposed track roughly a quarter-mile east of Cassidy Point Road. The total estimated infrastructure cost would be $70.8 million.

The study estimates the rail service’s ridership would average 2,162 passenger trips per weekday when the Rock Row development’s proposed build-out is completed. It did not provide an estimate for weekend ridership. At roughly 260 weekdays per year, weekday ridership would total about 562,000 trips annually based on the study’s estimate.

The study assumes a service schedule of 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Peak service would be either hourly or every 30 minutes, from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and from 6 to 11 p.m. on weekends.

Two cost estimates were provided for vehicles, operation and maintenance, one based on hourly service at peak times and the other based on 30-minute service at peak times.

With trains picking up passengers at each station once per hour during peak hours, only one train would be needed at a cost of $24 million to $28.4 million, depending on the type of vehicle chosen. The estimated operation and maintenance costs for hourly service would be $7 million to $11 million annually, according to the study.

With trains picking up passengers at each station every 30 minutes during peak hours, two trains would be needed at a total cost of $36 million to $42.6 million. Estimated operation and maintenance costs would be $9 million to $13 million annually, it said.

The rail service would provide travel times much faster than existing bus service for passengers traveling between West Commercial Street and Main Street at peak hours, the study said. For example, the rail service could deliver passengers from the Westbrook to Portland terminals in 18 minutes during morning rush hour, compared with 38 minutes by bus, it says.

Quinn said the rail line would open up a variety of new transportation options for commuters and visitors to the area, given the project’s proposed stop at the Portland Transportation Center, which serves both Amtrak Downeaster and Concord Coach Lines passengers.

“It would make it a lot easier for people to get around,” she said.


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.