$25 million rail bond for Lewiston-Auburn goes before budget panel

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AUGUSTA — A bipartisan group of advocates of bringing passenger rail to Lewiston-Auburn urged state lawmakers Tuesday to approve putting a $25 million bond package before voters this year. The money is meant to upgrade rail lines connecting the Twin Cities to Portland.

Among those backing the bond proposal being sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, is Lewiston’s conservative mayor, Robert Macdonald, as well as Reps. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Jared Golden, D-Lewiston.

Libby’s bill asks voters to approve the bond package this fall so the Maine Department of Transportation could act quickly to leverage federal and private dollars to expedite passenger rail service between Maine’s two largest population centers.

Under the bill, LD 438, $5 million would be allocated for upgrading about 6 miles of rail line between Danville Junction in Auburn and downtown Lewiston. Another $8 million is earmarked to upgrade 11 miles of rail between Danville Junction and Royal Junction in Yarmouth, where the Amtrak Downeaster passes through.

“The second-largest metropolitan area of the state is a mere 17 miles from being connected to the very successful Amtrak system serving the largest metropolitan area in our state,” Libby said at a news conference prior to a public hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

The committee is in the process of hearing a host of proposed borrowing proposals that could go before voters for approval in 2015.

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Libby said a strong coalition of businesspeople and public officials through Oxford and Androscoggin counties as well as in Coos County, N.H., was backing the proposal. He said the success of the Amtrak service between Boston and Brunswick via Portland had not gone unnoticed by other parts of the state.

He said the addition of passenger rail to and from Portland resulted in more than $100 million in economic development projects and that western Maine would also benefit greatly from a passenger rail connection to Lewiston-Auburn.

“We all recognize that a robust transportation infrastructure is critical to a thriving business climate in Western Maine,” Libby said.

Rotundo said the time for Lewiston-Auburn to get a passenger rail connection is past due and the region’s politicians and businesspeople have worked toward that goal for well over a decade.

“It’s time to get the job done,” Rotundo said. She said the economic benefits of adding passenger rail to Lewiston-Auburn’s transportation options would be both direct in the construction of the stations and infrastructure, and indirect in the jobs that would be created to cater to commuters and tourists.

“Over the last several decades, the state of Maine has moved slowly but steadily to acquire and improve railroad corridors across Maine,” Rotundo said.

Macdonald said the economic benefits of passenger rail could be the key to lifting the Twin Cities’ economy out of the doldrums or at a minimum, a tool in helping it keep pace with the growth in Maine’s southern counties of Cumberland and York.

“The city of Lewiston has been working hard in investing significant resources to reinvent our economy as our industrial base erodes,” Macdonald said. “Lewiston’s growth has lagged behind other areas in southern Maine. Extending passenger rail service to Lewiston would be a significant kick-start to our future economic growth.”

Bickford, who lives in and grew up in Danville Junction, said he’s a fiscal conservative but believes in passenger rail as a sound investment to help trigger economic growth in the region. 

He said opening a passenger line to Lewiston would be the next logical step in extending passenger rail to Oxford County and onward to Montreal.  He said that link would likely increase Canadian tourism to Maine.

“Last year, 4.2 million Canadians visited our state, spending over $450 million,” Bickford said. “It would be good for the environment if some of those visitors could travel by rail rather than by car. Some in the metropolitan area of Montreal don’t even have a vehicle, so this would be wonderful; it would bring more people to Maine and more revenue to our state.”

Advocates for the bill include the Sierra Club Maine and a host of lawmakers from across the state, including some from Rockland and Bangor. Supporters also said the state’s investment in passenger rail would send a signal to both private developers and the federal government that Maine is embracing passenger rail in a serious way.

Libby’s proposal will be the subject of a work session before the committee in the days ahead.

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