AUGUSTA — Advocates for a passenger rail connecting Lewiston-Auburn to Portland and possibly to points north and west asked the Legislature's Transportation Committee to get on board Tuesday.
A bill, LD 999, authored by Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, directs the Maine Department of Transportation to fund or to seek funding to complete a design and engineering assessment for extending passenger service along the state-owned St. Lawrence and Atlantic rail corridor from Portland to Auburn.
Craven said she has long been "baffled" by the notion that passenger rail to Brunswick, the latest connection for the Amtrak Downeaster, was more feasible than passenger rail to Lewiston-Auburn — the state's second-largest population center.
The hope is for a station in Lewiston-Auburn to be a stop en route to Montreal. "It is not a dead end," Craven said.
Tony Donovan, president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said the time was ripe and various sources of federal money could be tapped into by the Maine DOT.
"There is money out there," Donovan said. "The idea is to ask MDOT to seek these funds."
Donovan and MDOT's Nina Fisher each detailed previous passenger rail studies but pointed to different results.
Fisher, who testified against the bill, said previous studies did not reflect enough demand for passenger service to Lewiston-Auburn.
She said a previous feasibility study of the rail upgrade needed to bring passenger rail to Auburn showed a cost of between $138 million and $158 million.
Estimated daily ridership on the line, based on recent studies, showed as few as 432 people riding the train in 2035. Daily ridership between Portland and Brunswick was estimated at more than 1,600 people, Fisher said.
She said the engineering and design work alone could cost the state between $13.2 million and $15.5 million.
But Donovan said he believed the demand for rail was higher than MDOT's estimate. He said local meetings on the topic from Auburn to Bethel to Berlin, N.H., often had a singular theme.
"Every meeting in Lewiston-Auburn, the word is, 'We want rail,'" Donovan said. "But that cry goes all the way up that corridor."
Donovan said government has been promising passenger rail for this part of New England for decades and Craven's bill was the first step in making good on that promise.
Others testifying for the bill included Gary Higginbottom, a South Portland resident and consultant who previously worked in Auburn. He said the passenger rail between L-A and Portland would be more than just a gimmick or a tourist attraction.
"I have a very strong feeling that the two major population centers in the state of Maine need to be much more tightly integrated to move the state forward to the degree that we would like to see the economy of Maine move forward," Higginbottom said. "The two cities have been relatively isolated from one another — I say relatively isolated — in many cultural respects, in many economic respects and in many transportation respects."
He said the state-owned rail corridor linking the two cities is a "tremendous, tremendous resource." Higginbottom said the demand for mass transportation was increasing among younger Americans, especially as the cost of owning an automobile continues to climb.
The costs of maintaining and improving highway infrastructure was also growing beyond the state's ability to pay for it, and rail offered a solution, Higginbottom said.
"I would suggest one way to deal with it is to look at more efficient means of enabling people to travel, especially between the major economic centers," Higginbottom said.
Craven said her bill isn't a do-over of previous studies but a fresh look based on new information and new economic circumstances and the availability of new federal funds.
"This bill is for a different time and a different project, and as I understand it, a different model altogether," Craven said.
The committee will take up the legislation again during a work session in the weeks ahead before sending it to the full Legislature with a recommendation.