Plan for Portland-Auburn commuter train gets ‘game changer’ grant

PORTLAND, Maine — A long envisioned passenger rail service connecting Portland with Auburn took another important step forward Thursday as a national Realtors group announced it has awarded a grant to study, in part, new ways to fund the 29-mile public transit line.

The promise of a Portland-to-Auburn line has been quietly evaluated in recent years, but has been largely overshadowed in the media by the extension of Amtrak’s popular Boston-bound Downeaster train from Portland up the coast to Brunswick.

Tony Donovan, founder and president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said the newly announced $15,000 National Association of Realtors grant will build off of a federally funded study of public transportation options north of Portland completed in 2011. It also will be used as seed money to leverage an additional $60,000 to $70,000 to explore the proposed rail line, he said.

Donovan described the $15,000 grant, despite being small in size, as a “game changer,” as it provides the push necessary for the Portland-to-Auburn rail plan to build momentum. Previously, he said, it remained a long analyzed, but otherwise stagnant, proposal.

Among the focuses of the newly funded research work will be a look into utilizing so-called “value capture” methods of funding the transit expansion in Maine. The model involves recouping investment into the rail infrastructure by capturing additional tax revenues generated by raising property values along the rail corridor.

The plan essentially would be a transportation-focused tax increment financing program. Municipalities and private developers commonly use TIFs to shelter property tax increases — spurred by new development — from being collected by the state government, instead protecting the extra taxes for local reinvestment of some kind.

Donovan — who is also a board member of the Maine Commercial Association of Realtors, the local administrator of the national association grant — said property values increase along rail corridors as residents have easy access to transportation and businesses get easier access to potential train-riding customers.

Another potential strategy included in the value capture model involves approaching businesses benefitting from the customers or employees being delivered by the rail to help cover the costs of the service, Donovan said.

The state of Maine owns the railroad currently in place connecting Portland with Auburn.

“We’re saying maybe there’s a way to generate funds for transportation at the local level, and not only could we change the way we fund transportation, but change the way we make decisions about transportation,” Donovan told the Bangor Daily News. “We believe that if an alternative [to highway travel] is available, there are a lot of people who will want to use it and who will pay to use it, and who will find that their cost of transportation is less than that of owning a car.”

Portland City Councilor David Marshall serves on the Greater Portland Transit District board and is chairman of the city’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee.

“I think it’s important for us to look at transportation choices for people, and this particular rail line serves as a connection between the two largest metropolitan areas in the state, being Portland and Lewiston-Auburn,” Marshall said. “Our roads get a heavy amount of use. Every passenger car and truck we can take off the roads means less pressure on them, and they’ll last longer as a result. But there also are increasing numbers of families living without cars, so the timing is good to look at other commuter options throughout the region and see what the viability is.”

Donovan said the initial study will consider potential funding for, as well as the economic and environmental impacts of, a commuter rail service featuring 22 round trips daily between the two cities using smaller diesel rail cars with capacities of approximately 100 passengers each. The Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, would travel between 60 and 80 miles per hour through the corridor, Donovan said, although they could have a much higher maximum speed.

Long-term, he said, connecting Portland with Auburn would set the stage for future northwestern expansion to the fledgling Oxford Casino, ski resorts like Mt. Abram and Sunday River, and even perhaps all the way to Montreal, Canada.

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition president acknowledged that project skeptics may be quick to point out the estimated $60 million-$70 million cost of establishing the Portland-Auburn line — a sum that would cover, among other things, the reconstruction of the railroad, acquisition of the DMUs and building of the platforms along the way.

But he said Maine is well-positioned to access as much as $75 million in U.S. Transit Authority funding for the project from the same New Starts/Small Starts grant program that funded the aforementioned study into public transportation options north of Portland.

A federal program like that, Donovan said, could require a 50 percent match from the state or local governments. But he said when the costs of the proposed Auburn-to-Portland line is compared to the costs associated with maintaining roads and bridges, Mainers might be convinced to support the investment.

“Relatively speaking, the cost that we’re talking about investing in this type of transportation is less than what we’re talking about spending on roads and bridges, and we believe the numbers indicate a better return on investment than spending on roads and bridges,” Donovan said. “Even 50-50 is a manageable bond. People say, ‘Oh, $60 million,’ but you’re paying more than $20 million to replace the Martin’s Point Bridge [between Portland and Falmouth] and that’s only a third of a mile.

“We believe this will be the basis for a transportation system that will attract jobs, attract new wealth and new economic development,” he continued.

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Comments

 's picture

Let's DO This!!!

Having lived overseas and experienced mass transit systems, I must say I am a big fan! A well planned and integrated system is unbeatable. We are at the beginning of the process and therefore can learn from others and take the best parts of their systems and incorporate them here. We need to plan on a grand scale and then act on the plan when the time is right. Too many cities have waited too long and it has added tremendous costs to a public system. Where can I sign up to help?

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Some people miss the point.....

Living in Auburn, and working for quite a while in S. Portland and Scarborough, I definitely feel the economic benefits far out weigh the negatives. As for bus service, that would need to be expanded in the Portland area to accommodate workers getting to their destinations.
There is a definite advantage to being able to work in Portland, S. Portland and the Old Port. In other parts of the country people commute up to an hour and a half each way to work, by train. Think how far you could get in that amount of time. What that does is open a whole new employment opportunity to a lot of people. Imagine living in L/A, and not even owning a car, yet you would be able to easily commute to where the good paying jobs are. You would no longer be at the mercy of the "Purple Buses", not that there's anything wrong with that system. It just allows a very small employment area for those with no other form of transportation. Trust me, we just live in an area that hasn't had rail service in a very long time. Not many people know the positive experiences of rail service. Forget game changer, this is life changer.....

DAVID BURKE's picture

Train service will drop

Train service will drop people off in 1 location in Portland, 1 location in L/A. Enhanced bus service would allow multiple locations in both cities. It would do everything rail service would at a fraction of the cost. Some people are just too romantic about trains.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

0First of all....

First of all, there's nothing romantic about rail service. I used it extensively commuting to school, as well as work in Boston. As far as stopping in one place in L/A and one place in Portland is wrong. that train will continue all the way to Boston, and now even further south toward Cape Cod. Direct train service to anywhere is not available. I guarantee, the train would stop at every large populous between here and Portland, as it does from Portland to Boston.
So many people have a stereotypical view of what they think train service is. No one has ever experienced it so they only know what they read in "Yankee" magazine. I can promise you that if you ask anyone who lives from sixty miles north of New York City, to sixty miles south of Washington DC, you would hear everything you need to know about rail service. One thing you wont hear is romantic.
Like any rail destination, local (Purple) bus service would need to accommodate the central rail station. Cab service would heavily benefit from the service as well. Don't forget, trains are more suitable to run in severe weather than buses are. Add up all the cost of driving to Portland, or Boston. Gas, tolls, wear and tear on your car, not to mention you. Even on a bus your still dropped off at certain locations. Its up to you to get to where you need to be.
With so many people needing work, they should be allowed to get to where the jobs are, Whether thats in Durham, Portland, Old Orchard beach, or Portsmouth N.H. I'd be willing to bet, that the cost of a train ticket to Boston for one year would be pretty close to one months rent in Portland. I know this, my daughter lived there in an apartment less than half the size of my apartment here. She needed four roommates to pay the rent and utilities.....

Amen

Well said Frank. Most folks just don't understand how little should would need their expensive cars if they actually HAD cheap public transport.

Rowan White's picture

I'm really psyched about

I'm really psyched about this. I think it would be a great addition to our community.

 's picture

Great Idea

As a L/A resident This would be a great idea to extend the Downeaster to the Twin Cities... but the question I have is WHERE would they put the station??

DAVID BURKE's picture

Waste of money

Despite its self-proclaimed success, the Downeaster continues to operate at a loss. We don't need rail to Portland. We need better bus service. A lot cheaper, and better served to commuters. There is no proof that this service would eliminate any spending on roads and bridges - that will continue as needed today. Thus - no payoff. Just say no to this.

Jason Theriault's picture

Disagree

The reason you can say bus service is cheaper is that the infrastructure to support buses are already in place and the costs with that infrastructure are not included in the cost of buses. Amtrak is subsidized about the same as passenger air.

So I want an expansion to LA.

DAVID BURKE's picture

Exactly. It's additional

Exactly. It's additional infrastructure that isn't needed. We could enhance L/A to Portland bus service that would have more trips per day, more drop off locations in each city, at a fraction of a cost of this fiasco.

 's picture

Great news for

Great news for Lewiston-Auburn, hopefully something comes of this and sooner rather then later. The purple buses will have to add on another stop if this ever materializes. Anything to add competition with the turnpike is a good thing in my book.

Awesome news

I couldn't be happier to read this.

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