Lawmakers propose bond to spur job growth

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AUGUSTA — Democratic lawmakers unveiled a new $100 million economic development bond package Tuesday aimed at job creation that would provide the Lewiston-Auburn area with $5 million to improve rail service.

The announcement was made at a news conference at the State House.

About $47.5 million would be spent on highway construction and about $20 million would go toward purchasing the recently abandoned Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway in Aroostook County, in addition to the $5 million for Lewiston-Auburn rail. About $15 million would be used for competitive grants to K-12 schools for energy efficiency improvements and about $5 million for similar grants to Maine colleges. Another $5 million would be used to fund drinking-water and wastewater improvement projects.

“What we are talking about today is a bond package that is affordable, it is doable and is one that we can put on the ballot in June to make a difference; this is urgent, it is now, we cannot wait,” said Senate President Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. “We’ve been really responsible in our borrowing capacity, it’s something we can afford. Voters want jobs and this is an investment in the future.”

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State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said she advocated along with the rest of the Lewiston-Auburn delegation for funding to help revive the area’s rail service.

“If I were to vote for a bond, I wanted something for my area and we’ve been waiting and waiting. Truly, the Lewiston-Auburn area has invested a lot and it’s the natural place for rail to be invested in and we have to have a focus because if we don’t have a focus, it will never happen,” she said.

About $2 million of the rail money would be used to purchase about 15 miles of track between Yarmouth and Lewiston, according to state Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, who serves on the Transportation Committee. The remainder of the funding would be used to lay track out of the Auburn, allowing more trains to use the port, he said.

“It would also allow a turnaround. That becomes incredibly important when there is passenger service there. Plus, more acres that are currently landlocked will open up to economic development,” Carey said.

Craven said these initial investments would help lay a foundation for further economic growth to the region.

“We would love to have a passenger train come up from Portland and up into the Bethel area, because it would be an awesome economic development piece of rail where people could just get on in Boston or wherever and come all the way up,” she said.

Lewiston and Auburn would also likely gain from spending on drinking water and wastewater improvements. The $5 million proposed state investment would result in a 5-to-1 federal match, and several local projects are near the top of prioritized state lists.

Both Auburn and Lewiston have sewer separation projects that would cost more than $1.5 million each.

On the drinking water side, about $4 million total is necessary for what’s called “ultraviolet light treatment plant phase 2” for both districts, according to a state list. Both cities received a total of more than $4 million in federal stimulus money last year to design and construct new water-treatment facilities.

The June ballot already has about $60 million worth of bond questions already awaiting voter approval and Republican leadership was not ready to embrace the package shortly after Tuesday’s announcement.

“If our caucus is interested in moving forward with bonds, we’ll make sure it’s something that we can afford, make sure it’s something that will have the biggest impact on the economy and make sure it’s spent well,” said Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale.

Gov. John Baldacci will put forth his own proposal next Monday, an aide said, though the governor had not yet decided whether or not to include rail money for Lewiston-Auburn.

“We wouldn’t propose any level of borrowing that we couldn’t support financially; you have to make a calculation about investment in jobs today and infrastructure that pays off dividends in the future and your current financial situation,” said David Farmer, a spokesman for Baldacci.

A Moody’s Investor Service report written in late January said Maine had “below average debt levels” and praised the state’s “management of spending levels.”

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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