We are being railroaded

Those familiar with the history of development in Lewiston-Auburn know Benjamin Bates and partners in the Franklin Company grew this region through strategic infrastructure investment and good planning.

As we assess where this region is going, it is unclear this generation has an architect for the next era of development for Lewiston-Auburn.

In fact, the search for one brings about an indictment against current leaders here and in Augusta that, willingly or not, have unveiled plans to abandon the Lewiston-Auburn region and, in turn, the western Maine communities linked to it.

I said last week ("Two Roads, Two Maines" Aug. 9) that there is a contradiction in state highway funding that places Lewiston-Auburn and surrounding communities at a distinct disadvantage on a toll-highway, parallel to a free highway.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure impacts from Maine's planning and investment go beyond highways to the latest rail plan, rolled out most recently in a July study, "Moving People and Goods: The Governor's Rail and Port Investment Plan."

Rail, for both passenger and freight, creates a unique opportunity for urban areas of Maine to position themselves for growth. The Obama administration will continue to focus on "smart growth" strategies that reduce our dependence on foreign oil and manage the carbon footprint of our transportation system.

With that focus will follow millions, if not billions, of dollars. Those dollars, however, spent in a parochial fashion to advance political friendships and backroom deals should not be tolerated by the people of Maine.

Our economic livelihood depends on strategic and tactical investments.

The governor's plan offers varying levels of attention to existing and proposed new rail corridors in Maine. First on funding: $173 million is proposed by the governor in 2010 and 2011. Of that total, none are earmarked to connect Lewiston-Auburn to Portland, Brunswick or even to Montreal via the St. Lawrence line.

Instead, close to $55 million will be invested in PanAm Railways infrastructure to connect Portland to Brunswick and then beef up the Portland south route for higher speeds. Why? In addition, another $30 million would be invested in a rebuilt Mountain Division line from Portland north to Fryeburg. Why?

Lewiston-Auburn, and the communities connected to us via rail, get little to no mention, other than vague promises that one day we will be connected to this new state system through the "freight triangle."

In fact, the most logical connection of Lewiston-Auburn to Portland, because of existing freight movements and linking of Maine's two largest urban areas for passengers, gets just two paragraphs. By contrast, the Mountain Division Line from Portland to Fryeburg, owned by the state and idle, gets four paragraphs of attention and some interesting conclusions.

It is understandable that in a region represented by heavy hitters such as Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, that its projects would find their way to the top. A broad statement, that the Mountain Division Line has "substantial freight and passenger potential" sounds more like rhetoric penned by a politico than an engineering and planning analysis.

The report notes that reintroducing freight rail could reduce truck traffic by around 25,000. For those not familiar with transportation volumes in southern Maine, that may sound large. But compared to the daily truck traffic leaving Maine on I-95 is over 11,000 trucks a day, the $30 million Mountain Division investment seems much to reduce a volume equivalent to two days worth of trucks on the Turnpike.

Beyond freight, of course, is the move to integrate passenger rail along the I-95 corridor to Portland and then along the I-295 corridor to Brunswick, with stops planned in Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Freeport.

Yet Falmouth, Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick combined don't reach 50,000 in population while Lewiston-Auburn are closer to 60,000 with more intense urban infrastructure already in place.

And that is only population, looking at the demographics of those populations and the per capita incomes don't nearly match up with those of Lewiston-Auburn where half of downtown households don't own cars. It should be clear which urban population is more suited to public transit investment connected to job markets.

Those capital investments do not take into account passenger rail operating subsidies that currently exceed $8 million a year, as was noted in a recent rail study. Who will continue paying that and the growing subsidy to move the train to Brunswick? I'm confident Lewiston-Auburn and western Maine taxpayers will be included.

So in a community built by visionaries recognizing that we must be a united front in Augusta and abroad and that freight and passenger connections are central to growth, where do presently day leaders sit to influence this movement?

In the Legislature, two members of our delegation are on the powerful Appropriations Committee and another on the Transportation Committee. On the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, two residents of this region sitting on the board that's leaving Lewiston-Auburn behind. Martin Eisenstein, Lewiston's municipal attorney, is chair of the board.

Perhaps it's time the city councils, mayors and public start
asking hard questions to expose what the agenda really is. Something doesn't sit right with me when such influence from this region appears to be idle while this train passes us by.

 Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: jlabonte08@gmail.com.

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Comments

Andrew MacIsaac's picture

Lewiston and Auburn is the

Lewiston and Auburn is the fourth New England community we have lived in since I retired from the U.S. Army in 1995. It is the first one that feels like home. We have been here for five years and now have our roots firmly set in the banks of the Androscoggin.

What we have noticed since living here is that the money is in Portland, Yarmouth, Falmouth, etcetera and of course that the politicians are in Augusta. In between is Lewiston and Auburn seemingly always catching the droppings from the other two.

But it seems we are always in our own way. The conjoined downtown areas could be, and should be one of the great tourist draws in the state, yet Lisbon Street and the mill area lay fallow and the river front is (still) largely undeveloped. Why? I think because we continually make it such a difficult place to invest and develop.

The mill burning down should never have happened. It should have been torn down and/or redeveloped years ago. There is really no good reason why the river front has not been redeveloped and turned into an attraction by now. "L/A, It's happening here!" has turned into any empty promise and source of humor throughout the state. Our collective governments have let us down.

There could be and should be enough jobs in Lewiston and Auburn for everyone that wants to work. There could be and should be an attractive water front with free events every week in the summer to bring people in to town. There could be and should be "rainy day" attractions that bring vacationers from the coast and mountains and campsites when it's not a good day to be at the ocean or lake. The sad truth is that in Lewiston and Auburn, it's not happening here.

But it could be and should be.

Build it, and they will come. And so will the railroad.

DENIS E FORTIER's picture

It has been rumored by some

It has been rumored by some that Governor Baldacci is not a fan of the Lewiston-Auburn area. Your analysis would lend credence to this thought.

So my question here is, where is our State legislative delegation in this matter? We have a Democratic governor, and we have seats at the Approriations Committee. Where is the political muscle to work some sort of influence on the governor. Nearly 10 percent of the State's population lives in Androscoggin county, and a rail connection between Lewiston and either Portland or Brunswick makes a lot of sense.

Did our mayor forfeit any possible influence he may have had with the governor by endosing Susan Collins in her race for the Senate last fall?

Can we overturn this oversight and bring more economic balance to this equation?

RAYMOND FRECHETTE's picture

Tourists do not want to

Tourists do not want to come to Maine via rail or bus; if they do it is because of economics and we must question if this is profitable tourism. (This may not be PC, but must be accepted.) Tourists come to Maine by air and rent a car, by cruise ships and leave on same cruise ship, and mostly by private automobiles which gives them the freedom to come and go and visit as they please. Many also come in recreational vehicles. Trains are excellent to move freight and our transfer terminal in Auburn should make our governing leaders do a double take on this and help expand rail service in and out of the twin Cities. Getting freight on trains and off trucks and the roads is what our area needs. Mr Naldachiand his cronies should remember that L-A is what put them in power and reward the area.

Certainly passenger traffic could use the same rails and L-A is a population center that should be served. It used to be said and is probably still true that 50% of the State population lives within a 50 mile radius of L-A.

I wonder whether the

I wonder whether the motivation for investing such large sums in the areas infrastructure in the past might be a thing of the past for a few reasons.

The investment was not done with government dollars (not that I know of, if this is incorrect I'd like to know). The investments were private dollars motivated by the ability to turn a profit.

Two questions - What was the source of the profit? Does some such source exist today?

The source of the profit was turning crude goods into manufactured goods. The investments in manpower, land, buildings, materials, and operating costs were collectively far less expensive than the value of the return. Finished goods were turned out - whatever they were shoes, blankets, and so on, and the total sales were obviously known to have been far more than the operating costs in total.

The river was used for virtually free power; and labor, though increasing in cost was still cheap and plentiful. Power and labor pretty much sums it up and would seem to me to be the single reason that such investment now, either private or public, has not been shown to be feasible, and thus has not been made.

Am I wrong? What changes have occurred that now make these investments feasible, whatever the source?

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