Advocates of a proposed passenger rail extension connecting Bangor and Portland said it would aid people of all ages, fuel economic development in the Bangor region and be more environmentally friendly than driving.
Area residents and stakeholders discussed these benefits after draft results of a Maine Department of Transportation transit study were presented on Jan. 19. The study estimated how many riders the proposed train line between Portland and Bangor — with stops in Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville — could see compared to how much the expansion’s cost.
The expansion would close the loop on the state’s long-term plan to bring passenger rail into central Maine when the service first entered southern Maine in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said.
“We’re long overdue to have passenger rail to come to Augusta, Waterville and Bangor, so that close to 90 percent of the state can have access to it instead of just southern Maine,” Baldacci said.
The extension would build from the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service connecting Boston and Brunswick. The route now offers stops in Freeport, Portland, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Wells.
The Maine Senate passed a bill, sponsored by Baldacci, to fund the feasibility study in June 2021. The study began that June, and the Department of Transportation expects to release the results online in February.
The draft results will be open for public comment for 30 days, according to Department of Transportation spokesperson Paul Merrill. The final results will then be presented to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
The expanded rail line from Portland to Bangor could see between 5,150 and 7,250 riders each month by 2040, and from 62,250 to 87,650 riders annually, according to the Department of Transportation’s draft study results.
Extending the Downeaster from Brunswick, however, could cost between $628 million and $902 million, according to the Department of Transportation’s report.
Baldacci said he’s certain a rail expansion would bring jobs, drive economic investment and increase traffic in Bangor, Waterville and Augusta, similar to the growth Brunswick saw after the Amtrak Downeaster established a stop there in the early 2000s.
Bangor City Councilor Joe Leonard, who is a member of the transit study advisory council, said adding a passenger rail option would help Bangor “evolve into the future.”
“No matter where you look around the world … wherever we expand passenger rail, we see economic booms in those areas and population growth,” Leonard said.
The passenger rail would serve people of all ages, from college students looking to reach other destinations in Maine and New England to older Mainers who need to go to Portland and Boston for medical appointments, Baldacci said.
“I see it as multi-modal, because I think it can work hand-in-glove with our airports; people can fly into Bangor and take the train elsewhere,” Baldacci said. “We don’t even have a direct flight out of Bangor to Boston. In order to get to Boston, you have to fly to New York first to get to Boston.”
Leonard touted the popularity of the rail extension proposal, especially among young people and University of Maine students who are mindful of climate change and looking for environmentally friendly travel options.
Jacquelyn Gill of Bangor, a climate scientist, said expanded passenger rail would help the Maine economy, which relies on the well-being of its environment.
“As a state, we’re already seeing the impacts of sea level rise, the spread of ticks and other pests, and extreme weather events,” Gill said following the Department of Transportation’s Jan. 19 presentation. “On a per-passenger basis, rail has a third fewer emissions than buses and half that of cars.”
Russell Barber, president of Maine Rail Group, said he believes bus routes would expand their service to include the train station. This could bring more people and fewer cars to Bangor and beyond, including Acadia National Park.
The increased travel options and connection between central Maine and other parts of the state and Northeast also would encourage young people to stay in Maine to work, Barber said. It would make central Maine a more hospitable place for older Mainers to retire and still have transportation options beyond driving or taking a bus, too.
Julia Endicott, a new homeowner in Brewer, said having the option to take the train would help her and her fiance who share one car, but each needs to commute for work. Endicott’s fiance travels to Washington County once a month while Endicott commutes to Augusta several times.
“The idea of having passenger rail where I can commute to Augusta from Bangor would be huge for our family, because we’re not in a position, as many young families are, to afford or want two cars,” Endicott said.