With passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress last year, we have a golden opportunity to expand all modes of transportation and, in the bargain, begin making progress on the biggest threat we now face: global warming and the climate change it creates.

A Regional Transportation District light rail train heads south along Interstate 25 at Steele Street on Jan. 27 in Denver. Light rail features self-propelled cars that can operate in fully electric mode without the need for extensive track reconstruction or other expensive improvements. David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Part of the answer, in other advanced democracies and around the world, is light rail: self-propelled cars that can operate in fully electric mode without the need for extensive track reconstruction or other expensive improvements.

Yet light rail is not yet solidly established in Maine’s transportation planning.

The Portland City Council, however, showed a keen understanding of light rail’s potential when it rejected a zoning change in January that would have prematurely expanded commercial use along the waterfront, right next to a rail corridor that could soon be bringing trains downtown through the India Street neighborhood.

Think of it: a truly multimodal system involving cruise ships, ferries, trails, pedestrian and bike corridors – and limiting the impacts of cars.

The best way to avoid congestion and pollution, to move people in and out of downtown Portland quickly and efficiently, is through convenient, accessible and safe trains that run frequently and on time.


This is what light rail can do in a way private cars and buses cannot. The build-out of the ambitious plans for the waterfront, and the proposal for the Roux school at the B&M location, will inevitably require a decrease, not an increase, in vehicle traffic downtown.

It’s also important to understand that renewed rail use can be compatible with trails, and not in conflict with them.

Are there obstacles to this vision? Of course there are.

It won’t be cheap to rebuild the bridge connecting the line across Back Cove to the railroad line heading north to Auburn and Lewiston, traveling through Falmouth, Yarmouth village and Pineland along the way. Previous estimates were for $20 million.

Yet when we compare that cost to the hundreds of millions it will take to build the “Gorham bypass,” spur of the Maine Turnpike, it seems quite reasonable. The infrastructure is already there; we just need to make use of it again.

Once trains are connected once more to downtown Portland, and Amtrak service on the freight mainline across town, many attractive possibilities open up.


One of them is to route light rail along the Mountain Division railroad line, from a new transportation center on St. John Street through Westbrook and on to Windham and Standish, Maine’s fastest-growing towns, and already a congested commuter route.

Again, comparing the cost with the continuing turnpike widening through outer Portland, it’s clear this would be quite a bargain.

Westbrook to Windham is a route promoted by trail users, along with the rail corridor. But rail can co-exist safely with trails, if they are separated, and planned and operated in concert.

The key message at this moment of pandemic-induced reflection is that everything needs to be on the table. A truly integrated transportation system that serves everyone equitably, especially those with special needs who cannot drive, cannot afford or choose not to drive, is within our grasp if only we’re willing to see it and plan for it.

The Portland council’s action allows us to take a step back, and think hard about our next moves.

The federal infrastructure bill – along with proposed improvements in planning, oversight and future rail improvements at the state level – provides a great opportunity to realize a progressive vision we should all have for our city, region and state.

There’s no better time to start building it than right now.

Comments are no longer available on this story