AUGUSTA, Maine — Passenger rail service from Portland to Bangor is unlikely for the foreseeable future after Gov. Janet Mills’ administration issued two studies recommending bus expansions instead of new rail networks the state called imprudent.
The opposition from the Maine Department of Transportation was motivated in part by a high cost of expanding routes and the mostly clear highways between Maine’s largest cities, plus the long, bureaucratic process of adding passenger rail. But it disappointed advocates who have been perennially pushing the issue in the State House and in their communities.
The transportation department issued two studies on expanded rail to Bangor and Lewiston earlier this month, saying the combined costs of the routes could range from roughly $892 million to $1.2 billion and calling them “huge amounts for Maine.” By contrast, it said the cost of expanding intercity bus service would be in the seven-figure range.
Mainers currently have rail service via the Amtrak Downeaster, which began operating in the southern part of the state in the early 2000s and stops in Brunswick, Freeport, Portland, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Wells before stops in New Hampshire through Boston.
Proposals to extend service have excited the pro-train crowd, including in 2021 when Amtrak unveiled a nationwide expansion plan that would bring passengers back to Rockland for the first time since a seasonal service ended in 2015. Backers dusted off an old plan for an overnight route from Montreal to Boston via Maine last year, but it is also a long way from coming to fruition.
The inertia on the subject frustrates local advocates, including Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, a key rail backer who said he is “upset by the priorities of the DOT” and that the decision to instead prioritize more bus service for two of Maine’s largest cities “doesn’t make sense.”
rail expansion implications
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, a Republican who supports adding rail service to his region, said if “we are serious as a state about solving the housing crises and the workforce crisis, we need to explore multimodal transportation.”
“Buses are good, and they serve a great purpose,” Levesque said. “[But] that is just an excuse not to do a train.”
Lawmakers ordered the studies in 2021. An advisory group for the Portland to Bangor study included representatives from the cities of Bangor, Waterville and Augusta as well as the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Amtrak and Concord Coach Lines, which operates bus services between major cities.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee is still considering an array of other transit-related bills that seek studies on rail service improvements or expansion between Brunswick and Boston and Montreal and Boston, along with greater collaboration with New Hampshire and Massachusetts to get more Downeaster funding.
The DOT estimated new or improved transit service between Portland and Bangor could serve between 56,000 to 80,000 trips per year in 2023, or about 153 to 219 trips per day, and between 62,250 to 87,650 trips per year by 2040, or about 171 to 240 trips per day. A single rider making a round trip counts as two trips.
Nearby highways carry between 3.7 million to 8.9 million vehicles per year, or about 10,220 to 24,260 per day, depending on location, the DOT said. In 2019, Concord Coach and Greyhound buses, which go between Bangor, Portland and Boston, accounted for 149,000 trips in the study area, per the state study.
The DOT said transit services are “generally unsuccessful or require large ongoing operational subsidies when population densities in a corridor are relatively low, there are few large urban areas with significant employers or attractions drawing large numbers of recurring travelers, and the existing transportation options are relatively uncongested and therefore effective.”
passenger rail spending
The current Downeaster service has a “farebox recovery” rate of 50 percent, meaning ticket revenue covers half of the operating costs. That results in an annual public subsidy of over $17 million annually to maintain service, per the DOT.
One-way tickets from Brunswick to Bangor could cost from $84 to $116 at the projected levels of ridership. Bus tickets from Bangor to Portland now range between $15 to $30.
The department concluded the “cost-effective, timely, equitable and climate-friendly way” to improve public transportation from Portland to Bangor is to work with existing intercity bus operators on a 2-year pilot to offer additional round trips and add more stops, calling it “imprudent to continue the study of extending passenger rail to Bangor at this time.”
But Levesque, the Auburn mayor, said the state cannot ignore the benefits of passenger rail going forward.
“The DOT and the governor’s office and the Legislature need to take a serious look at how [to] have a comprehensive economy and society that is fair and transportation’s fair,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when the Amtrak Downeaster began operating in Maine.