Speakers urge communities to move on Portland-to-Auburn train line

PORTLAND — A resurrected train line between downtown Portland and the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport would do wonders for the state and all of the communities on the line, according to speakers at a forum in Lewiston on Friday.

Now it's up to the state and those communities — Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, New Gloucester and Lewiston-Auburn — to really make it happen.

"In those five sites, for a three-quarter mile radius around them, there are $2 billion worth of property tax assessment," Tony Donovan of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition said. "If we came in and increased those values by 7 percent, that would give these five municipalities an additional $3 million in property tax revenues every year."

Donovan was one of the speakers at a Smart Growth Mobility Forum at the University of Southern Maine.

He was joined by others from the federal Environmental Protection Agency's office of Sustainable Communities and LOCUS and real estate developers and investors affiliated with Smart Growth America to talk about encouraging economic development with transit development.

But the forum really centered on the St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail line, running from India Street in Portland through Falmouth, downtown Yarmouth, New Gloucester and ending in Auburn. It's time to develop it, speakers said, and open up development of the track beyond.

"The St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway, which goes from Auburn to Montreal, Canada goes from there," Donovan said. "Bethel is on that line. Oxford Casino is on that line. Gilead, a little town just before the New Hampshire border, is on that line. We could walk down to India Street with our bicycle or hiking gear, board a train and enter the White Mountain National Forest right from the center of Portland."

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition began studying the feasibility of refurbishing the 29-mile St. Lawrence and Atlantic public transit line between India Street in Portland and the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport in August.

They released their 90-page report last week.

According to the report, the service could run 44 round trips per day between Auburn and Portland with an average 35 riders per trip. With $8 fares, that would generate about $4.9 million in revenues.

Donovan said the entire project would cost about $118 million based on estimates from the 2011 Portland North study. That includes reconstruction of the rail line from India Street in Portland to the Auburn-Lewiston Regional Airport with signals, safety crossings, underpasses and overpasses along the way.

By comparison, Portland's Veterans Memorial Bridge project cost nearly $90 million, and work on the bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H., is in the same range, Donovan said.

"I'm not saying we should just drop $100 million here and there, but when it comes to transportation investments of that size, this isn't a big number," Donovan said. "Especially if you can show that there is a return on that investment and it reduces the cost of transportation for households and businesses."

Lee Sobel, finance specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Sustainability, said federal grants, local tax incentives and private investment could pay for much of the work.

"The question is how much will this cost you if you don't do it?" Sobel said. "How much will it cost in terms of economic job loss, in terms of revenue that would be generated, in terms of property value that meets up with growth that coalesces around transit projects?"

The rail project would show a return, according to Christopher Coes, managing director for LOCUS. Communities that build train stations see the surrounding land become more valuable because people will go there. Adding attractions makes it place people want to be, he said.

"The moment you put the new coffee shop near the transit station, it adds value," Coes said. "Then we add the hotel near the coffee shop and the transit station. Then it becomes a place. The idea is to create a place where people want to go to."

Coes urged local communities to begin working now, adopting zoning codes that would fit transit center and banking land to encourage development around them.


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MICHAEL FOX's picture


Why go to India Street? The center of Portland? Why not go to the transportation center. If people want to go into town from there, there is public transit. If people would like to continue south on another train, they could do so easily. And you would be using tracks that have already been upgraded with public funds.

Going to India Street would require the rebuilding of the trestle over Back Bay in Portland. It burnt back in the mid 80's and made it unusable. That in itself could prove costly.

Two Railroads...

There are 2 railroads which head north from Portland. PanAm (formerly Guildford), and St Lawrence and Atlantic (SLA).

The SLA tracks currently end in Deering, across the bay as you mention. Years ago they continued across the bridge, up the Eastern Promenade, and right down commercial street through the old port, eventually connecting to the tracks alongside the Veteran's Memorial Bridge and, indeed, the current transportation center. (There is even a computer simulator which includes these tracks virtually restored: http://store.steampowered.com/app/65215/ ) What is left of these tracks is currently only used (usually) once a week for a single car train to B&M Beans.

The PanAm tracks run through the north of Portland, bypassing back bay.

The issue here is that the tracks which lead to the Auburn municipal airport are owned by SLA. I believe that whomever is doing the advocating here believes that in order for a train to go there it will need to use SLA tracks for the entire journey.

I don't know if that is true, but I suspect it is not.

The SLA tracks cross the PanAm tracks in Yarmouth. A branch from the PanAm line runs almost parallel with the SLA tracks as far as Danville where they connect at Danville Junction, just south of Aurburn. From there PanAm runs right through the middle of downtown Auburn and Lewiston to points further north (just to the right of Rt 4 as you head north), but SLA runs from Danville Junction to the Auburn Municipal Airport before continuing on to Bethel and NH/Canada.

I can't think of a reason that Amtrak couldn't run trains from the Portland Transportation center north to Danville on the PanAm lines (which will still need work north of Yarmouth - it's not the same line that goes to Freeport and Brunswick) and then follow the SLA line the last few miles to the Auburn airport. I even think it would be advantageous to run connecting trains from the Airport down to Danville and bounce up in to Lewiston/Auburn on the PanAm tracks so that commuters can get to the airport or connecting trains south.

So in short, I'm not sure why they think the SLA line needs to be the one trains follow north from Portland, but I suspect that they only saw that SLA owns the line that goes to the airport and just followed it south.

As much as I would like to see the SLA line restored and a connection made directly to the old port, I can't imagine portland citizens wanting to pay to restore that bridge, or allowing trains back down commercial street.

MICHAEL FOX's picture

Speaking of Danville

Danville Junction just recently got a make over to rid itself of the diamond that used to be there and the new track that was constructed was called the "Passenger Main". Yes, we taxpayers paid for a portion of that. What this did was make it easier for trains coming up Pan Am from Portland to access the SLR main. The only trains currently using the tracks are the freight trains that originate at Danville on the SLR.

Steve  Dosh's picture

Mainers saturday 08:30 PST

Mainers saturday 08:30 PST ?
Get off your butts and Just do it ?
/s Steve

 's picture

Please Send Money


Tapped Out in Maine

FRANK EARLEY's picture

What's beyond, is what's really important....

Rail service from Auburn to Portland is fine, but being able to connect to trains going further south to MA and beyond would be a huge benefit. I can't drive that much anymore due to a disability, I still have relatives in MA, a train ride would allow me to travel further and faster. For me anyway, speed is my biggest concern. Second of course would be the ability to get up and walk around. On a bus it's more like climbing up the isle. If I drive myself, I have to make numerous stops to get out and walk around, which can really add to the length of the trip. I would love a train.....

 's picture

Curious as to how much money

Curious as to how much money Lewiston will have to put into making this work since it is technically not going to come to Lewiston.


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