AUGUSTA — Lewiston-Auburn rail advocates hope they'll benefit from the Legislature's renewed appetite for state borrowing.
The Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and others testified Friday before the Legislature's budget-writing committee, hoping the panel will approve a $20 million bond to improve the rail line between Auburn and Portland and potentially the line between Auburn and Bethel.
Supporters say the request could be used to increase the freight-rail capacity into the Port of Auburn intermodal facility while setting the stage for passenger rail service.
The request, LD 417, is sponsored by Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and supported by regional Democrats representing the region. Craven told the Appropriations Committee that the investment provided a direct benefit to businesses that already use the line to ship goods and a magnet for companies that might seek to locate in the region.
The project is also included in the state's Industrial Rail Access Program, which is designed to encourage economic development along the state's rail corridors. IRAP is a priority program for the Maine Department of Transportation; however, qualifying projects vastly outnumber available funding.
Craven said the time was right to back the project because of the availability of federal rail funding. States such as Florida have recently scuttled rail projects that were in line to receive millions in federal grant money. That funding is expected to be redistributed to states more willing to advance rail projects.
Robert Thompson, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and representing the county chamber, told lawmakers that rail played a major role in the development of the Lewiston-Auburn area and it would do the same in its future prosperity.
The bond request comes amid approximately $70 million in similar requests for rail projects. Supporters of other transportation projects lined up to testify before Appropriations. The Lewiston-Auburn rail project will compete against those projects.
The committee will begin reviewing a host of other borrowing requests that were carried over from last year when Gov. Paul LePage said he wouldn't support any additional state borrowing. The governor this year has said he might support some bonding, but he has declined to say how much.
LePage and Republican lawmakers have indicated that the borrowing would likely target transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and potentially, rail.
Large bond packages must receive a two-thirds vote by the Legislature and must be signed by the governor before being sent to voters for ratification.