PORTLAND, Maine — The 2001 establishment of Amtrak’s Downeaster train service created a passenger rail pipeline tying Boston to Portland.

That pipeline today carries more than 1,500 people a day between the two cities, a group that includes professional commuters and tourists alike, and generates an estimated $12 million in annual economic impact from visitors to Maine.

Now, advocates for a passenger rail connection between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn say linking Maine’s two biggest populations would be an important first step toward extending train service to the tourist destination of Bethel and on to the Canadian city of Montreal.

Boston has a population of less than 650,000 people. Montreal has a population of more than 1.6 million.

“That’s the big enchilada,” said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, of a passenger rail line to Montreal. “I’ve been saying that for decades, and I think that’s a huge economic opportunity for the state of Maine — not just for us, for Bethel or for Portland, but for the whole state of Maine.”

Led by the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and Maine Rail Transit Coalition, with the support of the city of Portland, supporters of a Portland-Auburn passenger rail connection are awaiting word on federal grant funding. The group applied for a $1.35 million share of $600 million in total U.S. Department of Transportation infrastructure grants.

The grant awards will be announced between late August and mid-September, Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition said.

“We’re in a very, very competitive situation,” Donovan said of the department’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Act — or TIGER — grant program. “I think it was 15-to-1 in terms of [a ratio of application requests to] dollars that are available. We think we have a great application, but there’s also fierce competition for that money coming from all over the country.”

Donovan said the council of governments and its supporters would lobby the Legislature for that funding if the federal grant doesn’t come through. He said that $1.35 million would be used to update previous engineering and environmental studies on the costs and impacts of upgrading the 30 miles of state-owned tracks between Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal and the Auburn airport to accommodate passenger rail cars.

“[A previous study found that] the cost of reconstructing the entire track between Portland and Auburn would be between $75-$90 million, and we believe that number is still accurate,” Donovan said.

Advocates say that expenditure could be covered as part of a larger state transportation bond or through a program that would capture and reinvest new tax revenues generated by rising property values along the rail corridor, among other measures. In either case, passenger rail supporters say, the cost would be worth it.

And this is one case where environmentalists are lined up alongside business leaders like Morrison.

“There are multiple overlapping environmental and economic benefits for providing more transportation choices for Mainers, and in particular for people living in the two largest metropolitan areas in Maine,” said Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club Maine Chapter.

“A passenger rail service provides a reliable and affordable way for people to get to work, to school and to play,” he continued. “It encourages people to avoid driving when they don’t need to, so … you also avoid the wear and tear on the highway infrastructure, which is extraordinarily expensive.”

The Portland-Auburn passenger rail plan being proposed includes potential train station stops in Falmouth, Yarmouth and Pownal between the two end points.

“Passenger rail service on the state-of-Maine-owned rail line would increase transportation choices for commuters and visitors, help to revitalize city and town centers along the route, and reduce traffic congestion, sprawl, and associated air and global warming pollution,” wrote Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and City Councilor David Marshall, head of the council’s transportation and sustainability committee, in a letter supporting the grant application.

Proponents say they could use smaller Diesel Multiple Unit rail cars — or DMUs — to ensure that the railroad’s intrusion on some of the rural communities along the way is minimized.

“These more resemble light rail cars than they do Amtrak,” said Brand of the DMUs. “These are scaled for people and you can add more cars depending on need. This is not a new technology. These are used in cities all over the country and world. They’re small and they’re quiet, relative to Amtrak trains or certainly freight trains.”

Donovan said private investors have already contacted his organization with interest in purchasing and operating the $15 million DMU cars as well as developing the $20 million train stations along the way. Although he said he could not yet name those investors, Donovan said the appeal comes in part from the potential to lease space to businesses seeking to take advantage of the increased traffic near train stops.

“Businesses will be attracted to those locations, and not just businesses, but residential investments,” he said. “It’s a known fact nationwide that private investment does not follow bus stations. But it’s also a known fact that significant private investment does come with train stations.”

That attraction could be amplified even more if the connection is extended to the ski resorts of Bethel on the way to Montreal, as Morrison, Donovan and Brand hope.

While many of the rail lines north of Auburn are privately owned, Canadian entrepreneur and politician Francois Rebello has already begun talks with those railroad owners to establish an overnight “hotel train” — with dining and sleeper cars — between Montreal and Boston. Such a connection would go through Maine and help boost visitation to places like Portland and Old Orchard Beach, which are already popular with Canadian vacationers.

“[Rebello] has opened the door up with private railroad operators,” said Donovan. “If that door does open, and these railroad companies see the financial benefits of passenger rail, our ability to go beyond Auburn to Bethel and farther becomes very real.”

Added Brand: “Once you get this first line, from Portland to Auburn, you can begin to consider linking to other communities. There’s been a lot of talk about then linking to Bethel … and that sets up the possibility of linking from Bethel to Montreal. That’s a tremendous economic opportunity. That’s all down the road, but the only way we can get to that opportunity is to extend the line to Auburn.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.