Maine’s not often thought of as a public transportation mecca, but recent successes with bus lines and passenger rail service are beginning to change people’s minds.

In what was described as a “rare interview,” Press Herald reporter Peter McGuire spoke last week with Benjamin Blunt, vice president of Concord Coach Lines, who described it as a “quasi-public utility,” and revealed that in 2018, it carried 640,000 passengers in Maine — a figure never before made public.

That’s nearly 100,000 more passengers than the Amtrak Downeaster, which began operations in 2001 from Portland to Boston, and carried 547,000 riders for fiscal 2019 — also a record.

The Downeaster initially offered stops in Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Wells, and later expanded to Freeport and Brunswick. Concord Coach plies the interstate system. It began Maine service in 1992 in Portland and Bangor, and built a new station in Augusta; it also operates a new state-financed terminal at the Maine Turnpike’s Auburn exit.

Concord Coach carries more people in Maine than in New Hampshire, where the Concord-to-Boston run was long its bread and butter. Its boldest move was undoubtedly convincing the Maine Department of Transportation, under former Commissioner John Melrose, to co-locate the Downeaster station at the Congress Street exit of Interstate 295, rather than downtown, where there was minimal parking.

The Downeaster traverses a siding to get there, but the combination of private bus and public train service has been a rip-roaring success. There’s parking for hundreds of cars, and it’s usually full.


The combined station wasn’t without risk, as Harry Blunt, Benjamin’s father, told me in a 2008 interview coinciding with the Augusta terminal opening. Buses and trains are often seen as competitors, but they jointly compete against the automobile —that road-clogging, air polluting, and increasingly expensive invention beloved of Americans but now losing some of its shine.

As Blunt correctly perceived, by the 1980s, bus lines like Greyhound served only 20% of the market — those with no alternative. By offering new equipment, amenities like wi-fi and snacks, on-time service and courteous drivers, buses can appeal — as the Downeaster does — to the entire market, from students to older couples who prefer not to drive.

Yet for all its promise, public transportation will need fundamental rethinking if it’s ever to seriously compete with the private car. That starts with state government, where Maine DOT, despite allocating a minor contribution to transit and pedestrian uses in its numerous bond issues, is still basically a highway-building agency.

Since the Downeaster arrived, years after former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell obtained funding, it’s been overseen by an independent agency optimistically called the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA). This has the advantage of unfettered oversight of rail service, but the disadvantage of being disconnected from state transportation planning and funding.

One could get the impression that Maine DOT doesn’t especially care for the competition for tax dollars that passenger rail represents, as two recent incidents suggest.

In 2015, the Legislature commissioned a DOT study of restoring passenger rail to Lewiston-Auburn. Unveiled earlier this year, it carried the whopping price tag of $250 million-$300 million. Much of the budget, however, required buying brand-new train sets for the 30-mile run.


The Downeaster itself didn’t have new trains; thanks to Mitchell’s connections, it obtained the Metroliner cars Amtrak retired as it introduced the Acela for its bread and butter, the Boston-to-Washington, D.C., run. They work fine. By putting up such eye-popping numbers, the Lewiston study makes rail service seem visionary, not practical.

An even more interesting case: NNEPRA’s plan to restore service on the state-owned Rockland Branch that connects to Brunswick. A previous operator had run seasonal excursion trains before Amtrak’s Brunswick connection was built.

Former Gov. Paul LePage ordered DOT not to provide the $2 million needed to get things rolling in 2018, but a new administration wasn’t eager to help, either — the earliest service could be offered is next summer, if then.

Without greater cooperation, not only public-private but also within the public sector, we could miss out on promising opportunities. As with the Rockland Branch, shifting tourism to rail and local bus lines along the Maine coast could build on the huge popularity of Acadia National Park’s Island Explorer.

Even in Maine, young people are choosing not to own cars, using public transportation and renting vehicles or booking rides on Uber and Lyft. And if the state is truly committed to combating global warming, expanding transit’s share of intercity traffic — now just 10% — has to be a top priority.

Transportation networks drive housing, development patterns and, ultimately, the economy. We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to create a Maine Advantage.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at 

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