Portland-Lewiston rail would be an economic game-changer
The Maine Department of Transportation has had a good plan in place since 2011, but has always put road projects first.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tony Donovan of Portland is president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.


Picture this: From an Oceangate Transit Center on India Street in downtown Portland, you board a modern, fully electric passenger train and head north to Falmouth, Yarmouth, Cumberland, Pineland and Lewiston on a route through Auburn and Androscoggin County, then through Bethel and on to Montreal.

This train is not a dream. In fact, the Maine Department of Transportation has just such a plan. Completed in 2011, the federally funded Portland North alternative modes study was shelved by Maine DOT in favor of highway-widening and buses on I-295. Following the past four legislative sessions, governors have authorized follow-up studies – but without crucial support from DOT.

We still have the plan, and it’s a good one.

What’s changed since 2011 is that, as projected by the study, congestion is growing – everywhere, not just on I-295. The climate is deteriorating, primarily from human use of fossil fuels to operate vehicles. Access to housing, jobs, services and health care is difficult, if not out of reach, for a whole generation.

The railway transportation corridor owned by Maine taxpayers has been protected under state law. The railway infrastructure is intact and ready for restoration.

This is not just a public project, or a public expense. Private, institutional and quasi-municipal entities are ready to invest in train stations, offering places to provide a host of transit-oriented services and products – train stations that link all modes, including trails, bicycle routes, bus transit, car share and ride-hailing services – and yes, parking for those who may need it.

The trains may be the most exciting part. The length of the 36-mile corridor can be electrified, using green renewable power. The trains are hybrid-electric or fully electric, traveling at Class IV speed of 59 mph, and up to 100 mph if conditions are right. They carry 100 passengers, with bike racks and even a small bistro serving coffee to commuters, as well as cocktails going home. Internet, of course. Trains and stations will be equipped with the newest technology for safe, smart travel.

In Lewiston-Auburn, the fully restored Maine Central Station is in the heart of the Twin Cities’ downtown, adjacent to the second largest medical center in Maine. In Auburn, a train connection at Danville Junction offers a direct route to Montreal and Bethel’s ski country. Pownal, site of an original station, is walking distance from the redeveloped business and recreational park known as Pineland.

Portland also has two stops. At Presumpscot Street, an 18-acre site adjacent to new stores, a lumber yard and offices, has parking, potential housing and could host the overnight facility where trains start and end their days, starting at 5 a.m., ending at 11 p.m., offering 22 roundtrips daily, 30 minutes apart.

The second Portland station is in the heart of the financial and working waterfront districts. The station at RR Milepost 0.0 is adjacent to perhaps the biggest development in the state, with hotels, condominiums, offices, restaurants, recreation and, of course, links to international cruise ships, ferries to Casco Bay islands, and across the Fore River to alleviate commuter traffic.

Would you like to know more? We would also. We’re asking the city of Portland, and all the towns along the corridor, to help fund an advisory study of the 2011 plan, using the state-owned St. Lawrence & Atlantic line between Milepost 0.0 in the Old Port to Mile 29.9 at Danville Junction in Auburn, then through to Lewiston.

We want to confirm our train station communities. We want realistic pricing. We ask for Portland to take the lead, for the Greater Portland Council of Governments to organize the effort, and for Maine DOT to sponsor funding.

We want you, the reader, to believe in and support this plan. This is for the climate. It’s for social equity, and for a sustainable Maine economy. It’s time: Train time.

— Special to the Press Herald