AUGUSTA, Maine — A bid to study what it would take to bring passenger train service back to Bangor took a step forward Thursday with a supportive vote in the state House of Representatives.
But don’t start tooting horns yet. The bill still faces considerable challenges.
The House voted 76-69 in favor of LD 1174, which is sponsored by Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, with Democrats mostly in the majority tally.
Dunphy’s bill calls for the allocation of $300,000 for the Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of returning passenger train service to Bangor. The study would focus on the condition of the tracks, how much it would cost to maintain them in the long term and the possibility excursion trains could operate seasonally beyond Bangor.
Dunphy said she has heard a lot of public support for the concept and that it would be an economic boon for the Bangor area.
“The outpouring of support from our constituents, local officials and people across the state shows Mainers are passionate about this idea,” Dunphy said in a written statement.
But support isn’t so assured in the Legislature. Dunphy’s bill came out of the Transportation Committee with a majority vote against it. In addition, Gov. Paul LePage has demonstrated on numerous occasions he is not a fan of studies.
Lastly, the $300,000 price tag — which represents the maximum of what the study would cost — could doom the bill next month when it is prioritized against a range of other bills with fiscal impacts that have been enacted this year.
The Bangor City Council has endorsed Dunphy’s bill, which was co-sponsored by all four House members from Bangor and voted for by Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor; Rep Adam Goode, D-Bangor; Rep. Tori Kornfield, D-Bangor; Rep. John Schneck, D-Bangor; Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono; Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson; Rep. Archie Verow, D-Brewer; and Rep. Jim Davitt, D-Hampden.
“Bringing passenger rail back to the Bangor area would enhance our local economy by improving connections between communities across Maine and beyond,” Verow said.
Supporters of the bills say passenger rail service to Bangor could expose the region to an intensified tourist economy and benefit large-scale events, such as the American Folk Festival and the Waterfront Concert Series, which take place near downtown Bangor.
The Maine Department of Transportation opposes Dunphy’s bill, based on its reliance on Highway Fund dollars. The department argues legislative action is not the proper way to alter its work plans.
“Legislation designed to put a project into our work plan, or in some cases remove one, is simply the wrong tool for the job,” Nina Fisher, manager of legislative and constituent services for the Maine Department of Transportation, said.
The Maine Rail Transit Coalition supports the bill because Bangor is Maine’s third largest city and — more importantly — because tracks there link to Montreal, Portland and the Acadia National Park region.
The Legislature is considering a second bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, to fund a $500,000 study to bring rail service to Lewiston-Auburn. That bill chugged through the Legislature with no opposition and now awaits a decision about whether it will be funded.
For years, passenger rail largely was dead in Maine but has shown signs of revival in recent years. The Amtrak Downeaster, which expanded passenger rail service from Boston and Portland to Brunswick in November 2012, has exceeded ridership projections by roughly 50 percent, according to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
The Maine Department of Transportation is interested in expanding rail service and is working on the implementation of a plan to spend $125 million on passenger rail by 2019. That could include passenger service from Portland to Montreal.
Bangor City Councilor Joshua Plourde said the council strongly supports Dunphy’s efforts.
“The city of Bangor, as well as northern and eastern Maine, would directly benefit from an affordable and efficient means of transporting workforce, tourists and general passengers to and from the region,” he said in testimony to lawmakers earlier this year. “We would be delighted to serve as your partner through the process.”