Dec. 1, 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of the Downeaster Rail Service. Naysayers said would never be successful. Now, it is recognized across the country as one of the most successful state-supported rail routes, with over 550,000 people using the service yearly before COVID-19.

Given this history of successful passenger rail, it is time to move forward to extend passenger rail to central Maine. The “lower road” from Brunswick to Augusta, which the state purchased in the late 1980s, was a major part of Maine Central’s freight and passenger rail operations before the sale of the rail company. It is part of the 130-mile rail corridor that extends from Portland to Augusta and ultimately to Waterville and Bangor on what is now Pan Am’s railway.

Within two years of the startup of the Downeaster service, 14 communities in central Maine passed resolutions calling on Maine’s Department of Transportation to identify the Brunswick-Augusta-Waterville corridor as a future passenger route and to preserve its rail infrastructure for future passenger rail and freight service.

The extension of the Downeaster to Brunswick in 2011 opened the possibility of regularly scheduled passenger rail service to the far southern end of the former Maine Central Lower Road. Naysayers again claimed it would be seldom used, but over 40,000 passengers utilized the service yearly before COVID-19.

More recently, the three major cities in central Maine have passed resolutions calling on the state to conduct a feasibility study. The latest Maine State Rail Plan, completed in 2014, also recognized that this and other corridors for the next phase of development of passenger rail service need to be identified and prioritized. The plan noted that residents in Augusta and in eastern and northern Maine have expressed interest in passenger rail services.

Fortunately, this year, the Maine Legislature has an opportunity to decide the fate of this corridor. Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor has introduced L.D. 227, which would provide $300,000 from the state’s multimodal fund to pay for a feasibility study.

This fund was originally set up to help cover the cost of passenger rail but has been used lately to fund non-rail-related activities. It is the state tax collected on rental cars. The Maine Rail Group applaud Sen. Baldacci’s effort and the seven legislative co-sponsors who have endorsed this bill. The study will examine the route and locations served as well ridership potential. It will look at related economic development, first approximation of capital and operation costs and revenues and proposed sources of funding.

The restoration of service will benefit the entire state since 90% of residents will live within one hour of passenger rail and it will promote new economic development in the communities it serves. It will also attract families who want to live in a city or more rural area, but who no longer can afford housing in the greater Portland area.

Rail service will also be good for the environment, for it will help reduce the state’s carbon emissions. It will also help reduce the need for widening Interstate 95 and Interstate 295, which could cost as much as $10 million per mile. It would provide greater mobility for commuters working at the state capital and for many of the 42,000 students who attend the University of Maine in Orono and the other schools in the area. Expansion of passenger rail will also expand living-in-place options for seniors and help reduce their social isolation.

The expansion of train service will also promote greater tourism, especially for those who do not want to experience the hassle of driving to Acadia National Park or who want to visit the highly praised museums in central Maine.

Please let your state representatives or senator know it is time to act now to take the first step toward restoring passenger rail service on this invaluable corridor.

Richard Rudolph, Ph.D., is chairman of Rail Users’ Network and Maine Rail Group director.  


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