BANGOR, Maine — It was a vision that captured the audience at a City Council meeting on Wednesday enough that one councilor warned against getting starry-eyed over it: Passenger trains running from Boston to Bangor as part of a traffic hub built on Washington Street.
But is that something that can happen anytime soon?
Probably not, one of the state’s leading passenger train advocates said.
“Support for passenger rail is something we are always very appreciative of. But that said, the infrastructure investment and [political support required] is significant,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, a public transportation authority created in 1995 by the Legislature to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and within Maine.
“It really does take a combination of local, state and federal support for something like that to happen,” she added.
It also can take many years, millions of dollars, and happen with no guarantee that the given project will work, Quinn said.
Passenger rail service in Maine is slowly rebounding from a century ago, when the big clock atop Union Station, the state’s largest rail depot, towered over the end of Exchange Street and the Kenduskeag River. But it took 16 years to build the Amtrak Downeaster service between Boston and Brunswick to the point it’s at now, with daily runs seven days per week. The Brunswick addition came in 2012.
“I think it will take 10 years to get trains running in Bangor,” said Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, who has a bill pending with the state Legislature seeking a Maine Department of Transportation study of the feasibility of establishing passenger train service to Bangor.
Seeking a new bus, not train, station
The City Council is pondering nothing so grandiose as a return of its romanesque revival train station, which was demolished in the early 1960s and replaced with what local passenger train advocate Robert Klose called “the architectural mortal sin of the current Penobscot Plaza.”
Tanya Emery, the director of the Bangor Department of Economic and Community Development, told councilors that a former car dealership at 170 Washington St. would make a good long-term home for the city’s bus service.
Emery suggested that the property could be expanded into “a multimodal hub” with “complimentary uses/services.” It has proximity to rail lines along Washington and Hancock streets and the Penobscot River and a dollar store, bread bakery, pharmacy and convenience store.
The area could be retooled to be more pedestrian-friendly, she said.
The property also is yards from the Penobscot River Bridge to Brewer and abuts the Bangor career center.
The rail service idea likely surprised the council. It was not part of Emery’s report to the council on whether to keep the Community Connector bus service at Pickering Square or move it to Abbott Square or Washington Street. Councilors rejected the Abbott option and sought further research on the suitability of the Pickering and Washington locations.
City officials are considering plans to improve city bus service and redesign Pickering Square in 2017 and have about $1.2 million set aside for the square work.
Councilor David Nealley, who favors turning the Airport Mall into a Community Connector station, dismissed Emery’s idea as impractical. He said that turning the mall into a hub, or using it and a downtown location such as Pickering as mini-hubs, makes more sense than awaiting the arrival of train service.
“It will take decades before it happens, and moreover it will then operate at a loss,” Nealley said Thursday.
Slow passenger train growth in southern Maine
The state’s sole passenger rail service has been a slow-blooming flower. The Amtrak Downeaster train began in December 2001 as a tourist attraction, running between Boston and Portland, but it has grown steadily.
Today, the Downeaster operates five round-trips daily from Portland to Boston and three daily round-trips from Brunswick to Boston. It has stops in Boston, Woburn and Haverhill, Massachusetts; Exeter, Durham and Dover, New Hampshire; and Wells, Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Freeport and Brunswick.
And it continues to grow. The passenger rail authority announced in November 2016 that a nearly $9.4 million railroad track project will begin in 2017. When done, it will allow the addition of two passenger train round-trips daily between Brunswick and Boston.
The month before, the rail authority unveiled its $13 million train layover facility in Brunswick. Longer than two football fields, it allows the train authority to service passenger trains overnight and to run a third train between Brunswick and Boston.
The apparent success of the Downeaster has perked some interest in Augusta and Waterville, whose leaders have voted to show their support to consider the return of passenger rail service to those cities. State lawmakers last year also allocated $400,000 for a study on the feasibility of extending Downeaster service to Lewiston-Auburn. Each community is contributing an additional $50,000 to the ongoing study.
Dunphy’s bill, meanwhile, has the support of eight Bangor-area legislators. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee is due to begin reviewing it on March 2. Dunphy’s previous attempt at a study died when legislators declined to fund it, she said. No funding estimates are yet attached to her bill.
“There does seem to be renewed interest in bringing passenger rail to Bangor. [President Donald Trump’s administration] is talking about making funds available for multimodal transportation and developing rail infrastructure. I thought maybe it was possible this time,” Dunphy said.
“This particular issue, last time, received bipartisan support. It doesn’t seem to fall across party lines,” she added.
Quinn said that Bangor would need a passenger service feasibility study before anything could happen. The city also would need to identify the market that passenger trains would serve and find a train service to operate them. Then city leaders would have to determine the infrastructure improvements needed to sustain the service, and then figure out how to fund it all.
Every step, Quinn said, would require the investment of a lot of time and money from stakeholders and government officials at the local, state and federal levels.
A 2013 study of extending passenger service from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn estimated that cost at $138 million. The 30-mile St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail corridor that connects Portland and Auburn is owned by the state. The study recommended stops in Falmouth, Yarmouth and Pownal, in addition to the two endpoints.
By comparison, Bangor is about five times the distance from Lewiston or Brunswick.
Another important point: The commuter-style passenger rail service envisioned by the 2013 study for Lewiston-Auburn would run from 5 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. seven days per week. The Amtrak Downeaster train service is not seen as a commuter service but rather an excursion service to Boston and back, and it runs far less frequently.
‘That money is not there’
Nealley said he would love to see passenger trains in Bangor, but he doesn’t see how it could happen. Northern Maine is fundamentally rural, not suburban like southern Maine, and suffering from extensive population loss.
“I just want to be pragmatic,” Nealley said.
Even without that exodus, passenger rail service is likely ill-suited for Bangor, he said. The city’s population is unlikely to be large enough to support commuter rail service by itself and northern Maine’s travelers regard cars as their primary tool, Nealley said.
“It would be one thing if the federal government was overflowing with revenue, or if the state had plenty of funds, but that’s not going to happen,” Nealley said. “We don’t have the critical mass that they have in Portland, and it is not like we are building population of our own” in northern Maine.
“Somehow there’s that mentality that there’s money available for a commuter train to Bangor, but that money is not there. If there was, we would know about it,” Nealley added.
Emery conceded that “there is a long way between an exploratory study and a train showing up in Bangor. However, there is a responsibility in any community to look at not just what the needs are now, but what the long-term needs might be,” she said.
Washington Street’s suitability as a rail site merely depends upon how the city defines “long-term,” she said.
“It is really a shot in the dark to put a timeline on it. I think that [having passenger rail service happen in] 10 years would certainly be exciting. It takes years for these things to develop,” Emery said.
Keeping the conversation going
Nealley favors the privately-owned Airport Mall at 1129 Union St. as a potential station or minihub. It’s very large, relatively underused, and in a great location for the city bus service. Using the mall as a hub would connect city buses to travelers and cab services at Bangor International Airport, and the revenue that produces, plus put it close by the Concord Coach Lines terminal at 1039 Union St. on a road network that could readily handle buses, Nealley said.
Questions linger about the feasibility of placing a bus station on Washington and Hancock streets. Both streets in that area are narrow one-way roads and have sidewalks on one side.
Moving the city bus service outside downtown, Nealley said, would connect it to many large businesses closer to the city’s outskirts. Any potential loss to downtown businesses would be more than offset by an idea that all councilors at Wednesday’s meeting seemed to like: Establishing a downtown shuttle that would have several stops.
“We don’t have as consolidated a downtown as the Old Port area [of Portland]. Our downtown is a little more spread out. Therefore I believe a shuttle makes good sense,” Nealley said. “This is a big long-term decision for the city. I truly believe no matter what we do, the shuttle makes sense, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”
Dunphy said that even if her bill fails, and Washington Street doesn’t make it as a transit hub, Emery did well raising the issue of train service.
“It keeps the conversation going,” Dunphy said.