Jun. 9—A proposal to extend passenger rail service to Lewiston and Auburn isn't exactly on the fast track, but it is chugging along after lawmakers this week backed further study of the idea.
The $180,000 proposal would build on a 2019 study of rail options between Portland and the state's second largest metropolitan area to require the state Department of Transportation to provide "an economic evaluation of commuter and passenger rail service" on the route by next March.
Proponents hope that with a solid plan in place, the state may be able to grab a chunk of cash from President Joe Biden's $80 billion initiative to bolster rail travel across the country, which has yet to win congressional approval.
"The station in Lewiston is still there," with many residents living nearby and Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College within walking distance, said Lewiston resident Richard Grandmaison. "Lewiston is ready for passenger rail."
Officials in Lewiston and Auburn are almost uniformly on board with the idea of restoring passenger rail between the Twin Cities and Portland for the first time in more than 60 years.
"The time and money invested in discovering what the true economic benefits would be to Central and Southern Maine is well spent and will give us the direction needed to either move forward with confidence or shelve this idea until situations change," Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque told legislators recently.
Under the measure legislators approved, the state would pay 90% of the tab for the new study while Lewiston and Auburn would be responsible for the other $18,000.
The 2019 study that undergirds the next step sought by supporters estimated that commuter rail service between the Twin Cities and Portland would probably cost between $200 and $300 million.
That report, by the engineering firm VHB, was the end result of a four-year, $400,000 study funded in 2015 to look into the implementation of passenger rail service between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. Each city kicked in $50,000 toward the expense.
The Legislature offered its support this week to two bills related to passenger rail extensions. The other calls for more study of providing service to Augusta, Waterville and Bangor.
"Maine once had statewide rail service, but today only a small portion remains," state Sen. Ben Chipman, a Portland Democrat, said in a prepared statement.
A century ago, a network of rail lines allowed for passenger service to much of the state, including trolleys that ran regularly between communities large and small until the spread of automobiles after World War I made them unprofitable. Passenger trains ceased most service by the 1960s.
"It's hard to imagine what we lost when many of these railroads closed. It's time we made a substantial investment to figure out how to return rail to Maine," Chipman said.
State Sen. Joe Baldacci, a Bangor Democrat, called passenger rail's return to Maine "long overdue."
"Proposals like this give a necessary and in-depth look into how we can make rail service affordable and sensible," Baldacci saod. "This feasibility study lets us explore possibilities and opportunities for growth and development and connects our whole state."
"We'd be using existing infrastructure to invest directly in our people," Baldacci said. "With a U.S. Department of Transportation ready to invest in passenger rail, the time to act is now."
Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition said in a press release that "Because of funding currently being offered by the federal government, time is of the essence" for the plan.
"We have the opportunity to be in a good position to make real investments in Maine's future," Donovan said.
Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston' economic and community development director, told legislators that "with tourism in Maine increasing, increasingly congested roads in the Portland metro area which Lewiston-Auburn borders, and long established cultural and tourism times to Canada, the return of passenger rail is a time that has come."
Portland Mayor Kate Snyder is also a major supporter of pressing ahead on the proposal.
Snyder testified last month that there is "an enormous need and desire to increase transportation options to and from Portland."
"Doing so would yield a number of benefits, including strengthening our local and regional economies as well as working to reduce regional reliance on passenger vehicles and mitigate our collective impact on the climate," Snyder said.
The rail lines between the Twin Cities and Portland already exist. There are, in fact, two possible routes for most of the trip.
But rail lines used by freight trains, as the tracks carry today, would need major upgrades to make them safe for passenger trains, officials have said.
One major issue to work out is exactly which route should be used and where it should wind up in Portland.
Chipman and Baldacci said the study they hope will come next "would examine potential station locations, market demand for rail, potential economic benefits, the environmental impact, funding options, necessary capital investments, and the possibility of expanding service to Montreal and Boston."
Kim Sparks, chairperson of the decade-old Androscoggin-Oxford-Coos Counties Rail Coalition, told legislators that extending passenger rail into western Maine "could facilitate tourism to our casino, our ski resort and our beautiful outdoor attractions."
"Passenger rail could help our young people continue to live and raise families in western Maine while commuting to work in southern Maine or Boston," Sparks added.
The coalition said that "almost every town on the rail corridor from Lewiston to Berlin, New Hampshire has passed resolutions at the municipal level in support of passenger rail expansion. There is clear local support for these efforts."
State Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat, called rail expansion "critical to the health of our state's economic and environmental future. With a federal government poised to assist states in expanding their transportation infrastructure, now is the time to act."