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Richard Rudolph of Portland is a retired university professor and a member of the board of directors of the Maine Rail Group and chairman of the Rail Users’ Network.
The Joint Transportation Committee of the Maine Legislature will soon consider restoring passenger rail along the Portland corridor to Augusta, Waterville and Bangor. Passage of LD 227, which Sen. Joe Baldacci has sponsored along with seven co-sponsors, will provide $300,000 for a feasibility study to determine the scope, costs and advantages of passenger rail along this corridor. It is the first step in a multi-year process to ultimately obtain federal funds to help underwrite the cost of construction and to purchase equipment to operate the service.
While some may say it is not the most opportune time given the impact that the COVID has had on the state budget, the case for it is stronger than ever. There is new national leadership that is interested in investing in infrastructure programs in rural areas, as well rebuilding bridges, railways and other vital infrastructure. President Joe Biden supports passenger trains and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has a strong interest and “advocates for moving the U.S. transportation system away from the chokehold of car culture,” as the High Speed Rail Alliance put it.
The money for the feasibility study would come from the state multimodal fund, which was originally set up to help cover the cost of passenger rail, but has been used to fund non-rail related activities. It is tax revenue collected on rental cars.
Extending passenger rail to central Maine is a strategic investment in Maine’s future. It will not only promote new economic development in the communities and region that it serves, but will also support young people who wish to stay and succeed in the Maine economy who no longer can afford housing in the Portland area.
Rail service will also provide greater mobility for commuters working in Augusta, Bangor, Portland and Waterville and for many of the 47,000 college and university students who attend the University of Maine in Orono and the other colleges and universities in central Maine.
Expansion of passenger rail would provide greater mobility options for older Mainers. It will expand living-in-place options and reduce social isolation among older residents. People 65 years and older currently are entitled to a 50 percent discount off the regular one-way fare on most Downeaster trains.
Tourists who don’t want the hassle of driving to visit Acadia National Park will more likely choose riding a train if there is a dedicated “last mile” connection. Existing bus service could be extended and expanded to Acadia. This undoubtedly will become a more attractive option as park authorities move to further restrict the use of cars in the park.
The extension of passenger rail will also connect Maine’s largest healthcare systems, like Central Maine Medical Center, Northern Light Health and Maine Health for all who are within walking distance to a railway.
The extension of passenger rail will also be good for the environment. It will help reduce congestion, especially along interstates 95 and 295 during the morning and evening commutes, and reduce carbon emissions, especially if new equipment is utilized such as diesel multiple units, which are more energy efficient, or battery-operated equipment. It will also help reduce the need to further add additional lanes on interstates 95, 295 and 395, which can cost more than $10 million dollars a mile to build.
Passenger trains are also a safe, year-round alternative for they are all-weather vehicles seldom slowed or stopped because of rain or snow.
With the expansion of rail service to Bangor, 90 percent of the state’s population will be within one hour of passenger rail.
It’s time to provide an alternative to our total dependence on central Maine’s road system to get to work, attend colleges and universities, seek medical attention, to shop or to attend cultural attractions in Portland or Boston. Please let your state representative or senator know it is time to take the first step to restore passenger rail to central Maine.