AUBURN – You could almost see the dreams afloat in the small room. Imagine it: boarding a train in Lewiston and taking it to Portland or Boston, or better still, all the way north to Montreal.
One man suggested that the Olympics could one day land in Lewiston-Auburn if such a commuter system was in place. Others imagined local people reuniting with long-lost family in Montreal – the second-largest French-speaking city in the world – or Quebec. And there were those whose heartbeats quickened when they thought of all the tourists coming here, all the dollars spent, the jobs created.
“This is a huge economic development opportunity,” said Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce President Chip Morrison. “This is looking at the big future.”
It’s been talked about for decades. But the notion of such railroad connections took a giant step closer to reality in the form of a gathering with a tongue-twisting title.
It’s called the Maine Department of Transportation Lewiston/Auburn/Montreal Passenger Feasibility Study and it was well-attended Wednesday night. Dozens filled the chairs at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments building on Manley Road.
State and local representatives were there, along with ordinary citizens who dream of that connection between the people of Canada and Maine, a connection that was once there but vanished when the big highways came along.
“This community, and other communities in Maine, were built by people who got off a train here,” Morrison said. “This really reinforces the history.”
The study involved several groups and several acronyms. There’s MDOT which is leading the effort, along with AVCOG and AECOM, a global network of engineers, planners and project managers.
“This is a great time for rail and a great time to make investments,” said Sue Moreau, manager of multimodal operations at the MDOT. “We have proven, here in Maine, that we know what we’re doing.”
If it were as easy as throwing down railroad ties to connect us to Portland, Bethel and points north of the border, sledgehammers might already be swinging. But the above groups are charged with determining which lines to use, where stations should be located, how many would be coming and how many going.
At a glance, it looks like a process that might grind on for years, if not decades. In reality, the situation is not so dire. Much of the work has already been done, according to Don Craig, director of transportation at AVCOG.
Things like environmental assessments have been completed and much of the infrastructure already exists. There are St. Lawrence & Atlantic lines already making a lot of the connections and the Amtrak Downeaster has been running every day between Portland and Boston. In Bethel, along the route to Montreal, a ski train station already exists.
“We can do this in a few years,” said Paul Weiss of the Maine Sierra Club, a group that prefers train travel over the much slower and environmentally damaging options such as busing. “This thing could be up and running in two or three years.”
The feasibility study is expected to be finished in December. If that proves favorable, the next steps would include securing federal and state funding, securing permits, designing, procuring equipment, all the bureaucratic steps that precede the pounding of spikes.
“These," said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, “are exciting times.”
Not that anyone in the room was promising it would be easy.
“It takes a long time,” said Tom Crikelair, a consultant from Bar Harbor, “because we are talking about spending a significant amount of money and we can’t afford to get it wrong.”
How much money? The issue was not discussed Wednesday night. Not this early in the process. The group instead hinted at how much money could be made in the form of new jobs and of a booming tourist trade between Maine and Canada. Studies will be done to determine how many people might come down from Canada to fill up hotels and shop at Maine stores.
“We want them coming down for more than just day trips,” Craig said.
The meeting was an optimistic one, but not all views were through rose-tinted glasses. Some worried that buses might be introduced instead of trains – one option presented as a means of getting people accustomed to public transportation.
Bruce Damon of the Lewiston Planning Board bristled at the lack of communication between the MDOT and municipal planning groups. He also warned against building a train station somewhere on the outskirts, too far away for many in the downtown area.
Moreau, from the MDOT, promised there would be greater communication as plans continued to evolve.
“We want to do what makes the most sense for the area,” she said. “And what will attract the most riders.”
More meetings are planned before the study is complete in December. Long after this one was over, most of the participants lingered at AVCOG to talk privately about the potential joys of train travel.
“I’d like to go see the Red Sox on the Northeaster,” said former Auburn Mayor John Cleveland. “And boy, I’d like to get on the train right here.”