If the state was interested in promoting the economy in central Maine, it should direct investments in railroad infrastructure into Auburn, where the inland "port" handles more freight traffic than any of the state's three seaside shipping locales: Portland, Eastport and Searsport.
This investment would serve a twofold purpose: strengthening the ability of the busy Port of Auburn, plus laying groundwork for new passenger service from central Maine toward southern New England and beyond, i.e. Boston and New York City.
On the surface, this seems sensible. New transportation plans — of any type — should focus on the regions where current activity demands new investments, and where the population is large enough to make movement of people and products not only practical but likely profitable.
The governor's rail plan, however, is urging to make tracks elsewhere. Instead of Lewiston-Auburn, the plan advocates for expanding freight and passenger rail service toward Brunswick and Fryeburg, each of which holds lesser potential for activity than the route through Central Maine.
A public hearing on the governor's rail plan — "Moving People and Goods" — will be held Thursday, Oct. 22, at 6 p.m., in the Lewiston Public Library.
These communities are worthy of investment, but resources for rail are finite and must be spent where they could reap the biggest reward. New passenger service to Brunswick, although it would connect an existing service from Rockland to Portland and beyond, is by no means a safe bet.
Until the future reuse of Brunswick Naval Air Station is decided, the greater Brunswick area could experience future decline in both economic activity and population. Is this the right time, then, for starting passenger service there, especially since it may require a sizable, ongoing subsidy by taxpayers?
The Fryeburg route seems to put economic potential above economic reality. To rehab the Mountain Line for freight and passenger excursions, as the plan states, is shortsighted. Why should the state invest for new tourist trains, when Maine citizens and businesses have real needs?
Central Maine — Androscoggin, Oxford, Franklin and Kennebec counties — has the population and economic activity to demand new investments in passenger and freight rail. If the goal is economic development, the state should target its resources where they can do the most good.
This is important, given that the governor's plan relies predominantly ($148 million of $173 million of total spending) on one-time stimulus funds. Whatever projects earn funding will require future government support to maintain, which is the lesson so far of the Amtrak Downeaster.
From our perspective, this foundation of the funding should dictate state strategy. As the busiest hub of freight traffic in Maine and its second-most populous region, Lewiston-Auburn deserves investment in rail infrastructure. Spending the money here should pay the greatest dividend for all taxpayers.