We applaud Tony Donovan, a Portland Realtor and president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, for thinking big, thinking outside the box and finding private money to move his idea forward.

The Bangor Daily News first reported Thursday that the National Association of Realtors will contribute $15,000 to help study new ways to fund a 29-mile rail transit line between Portland and Auburn.

The rail extension idea has been kicked around for years, and some preliminary work has been done to keep the possibility alive.

The state of Maine owns an existing track connecting the two cities, but it would take between $60 and $70 million to rebuild that road, acquire rolling stock and build platforms in communities along the way.

Donovan told the BDN that the $15,000 grant from the Realtors is small, but he sees it as a “game changer.” He hopes it can be used to leverage an additional $60,000-$70,000.

Donovan’s plan calls for using small diesel trains capable of carrying about 100 passengers each, he told the BDN. The smaller cars would travel between 60 and 80 mph and would make 22 round trips per day.

The real obstacle to any passenger rail project is funding. Traditionally, such extensions, like the one under way between Portland and Brunswick, rely almost exclusively upon federal transportation grants.

With soaring federal budget deficits and the possibility of massive government cuts through sequestration looming, the chances of obtaining federal money seem increasingly remote.

But, like we said, Donovan is thinking outside the box.

He says the new research will explore using “value capture” methods of funding, which involve “capturing” some of the additional property tax revenue that would be generated by proximity to the line.

Property values often increase, sometimes dramatically, when it becomes easier and less costly for commuters to live further from a city center, like Portland.

A rail line into Auburn might convince people thinking of buying a home close to Portland to buy or build instead in Auburn or someplace between the two cities.

Not having to own a car, pay for parking, fuel and tolls could be a significant savings, plus a homebuyer might be able to obtain more home for the dollar here than in Portland.

The rail line might also appeal to anyone traveling to Portland for business, shopping or entertainment.

Critics may point out that there is currently not enough commuter traffic between Auburn and Portland to justify the line.

That may be true now, but commuters here also face a significant deterrent to taking a job in Portland — the Maine Turnpike.

Tolls for reaching Portland are already exorbitant for L-A commuters and they are only going higher after a Turnpike Commission vote Wednesday to increase them again.

Having a low-cost alternative to the Turnpike would could dramatically increase growth here, and traffic between the two cities, over time.

The purpose of a study, of course, is to determine whether something can be done. Perhaps “value capture” will turn out to be an unrealistic way to help pay for the line.

Still, we compliment Donovan and his group for jump-starting this important discussion with new ideas.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (Aug. 17)