Maine taxpayers own a transportation infrastructure asset that is the envy of places around the world. Over the past 20 years, the state of Maine’s investment in railroads has provided an impressive return on investment. A recent opinion of value is $1 million a mile, or over $350 million in transportation infrastructure assets, on an investment of maybe $20 million is state funds. And, in most cases, these railways are in good condition. One route in particular has been the subject of state transportation planning to the tune of millions of dollars in engineering and analysis.

The route of interest is the railroad corridor between Portland and Auburn, beginning at Milepost 0.0 at India Street in Portland, to Milepost 29.9 at Danville Junction, 6 miles by rail into downtown Lewiston. This railroad intersects with the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train in Yarmouth and bisects town centers in at least seven of the commuter communities north of Portland.

The 2011 Maine Department of Transportation Portland North report stated, “The primary purpose of the Project is to improve transit mobility options in the study corridor, which is currently experiencing major highway congestion that is expected to significantly worsen over time.” This state-owned railroad corridor was the primary subject of that work. In 2020 the Governor’s Climate Council report found that the transportation sector is responsible for 54 percent of Maine’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, and that the Climate Council goal is to reduce emissions by 80 percent.

The state now has in hand the Lewiston/Auburn Passenger Rail Service Plan, which positions Maine to address these needs head on.

The state has a plan for a commuter train operating up to 22 round trips each day, moving as many as 600,000 travelers annually, taking cars off the roads, operating a modern fleet of hybrid-electric trains, on a restored railroad that will provide a valuable link in the long-sought train connection to Montreal. Emulating the success of the Downeaster, the plan will attract valuable transit-oriented development investments in all the towns served along the corridor.

Despite the efforts of the Maine Legislature and cities on the rail, what is lacking is the political will to discuss the cost. Costs can no longer hold this project back. This discussion is needed right alongside the long-delayed discussion on climate change. To succeed with innovative projects to meet much-needed goals, we cannot shy away from the costs. The costs of the status quo are much greater. The climate will not wait, and our highways, even with the $500 million Turnpike expansion, are not getting any safer.

The cost appears to be $300 million. That is for 30 miles of new high-tech railroad infrastructure, new high-tech electric trains and the electrical system that goes with it and new high-tech, progressive building of train stations, sidings and transit-oriented development. That means that the $30 million railway needs public investment. The $5 million trainsets need an operator, and the $10 million train stations need investors.

All this can be done. It can be done now. In our opinion, it must be done now. The 130th Maine Legislature will be considering a set of bills to get this done, including a bond issue for consideration by Maine voters in November. The Biden administration has signaled a substantial stimulus investment in infrastructure. Private investors nationwide are looking at train station sites for development. The state of Maine has the experience of creating and operating one of the most successful passenger train operations in the country.

It is the perfect time for putting Maine on the move. It is train time.

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