LEWISTON – It used to be don’t miss the boat.

Maybe the new cliche should be don’t miss the train.

Over the weekend, Gov. John Baldacci announced a new initiative to expand passenger rail service from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn and up the coast to Brunswick.

On Friday, Baldacci signed an executive order that will create a plan for expanding rail service and calls for more economic development to focus near existing train stations along Amtrak’s Downeaster route, which connects Portland to the North Station in Boston.

Baldacci unveiled the order on Monday, preempting a campaign event by independent gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill on Tuesday.

Appearing in Rockland, Merrill delivered a more ambitious plan that marries affordable mass transportation, economic development and casino-style gambling.

Merrill’s plan would connect Portland and Montreal with passenger rail service that would be subsidized by allowing gambling on the train. With potential stops in Lewiston-Auburn and along the coast, the plan would also require significant state and federal investment, she said.

Merrill, a one-term state representative from Appleton, even suggested a name for the train, the Maine-to-Montreal High Roller.

“It’s time to get Maine’s economy off the branch line and onto the fast track,” Merrill said several times during an interview with the Sun Journal. “Just like the windmills on Black Nubble Mountain, people realize that we can’t continue to do things the old way. It’s really time to connect Maine to Canada.”

The expansion idea is not without hurdles, including high cost, difficulty in crossing the Canadian border and necessary negotiations with the companies that currently own the tracks.

“This is going to be very expensive,” Merrill said. “I don’t have a concrete number on the costs, but in some places it’s going to cost as much as $1 million a mile. … But we can’t continue to rely solely on the automobile. We’ve got to get serious about mass transportation.”

Merrill said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud advanced the idea of connecting Maine and Canada via passenger rail four years ago, but said without a plan to make it happen and to pay for it, nothing has happened.

Gambling remains a contentious issue in Maine, despite the success of slot machines in Bangor and the state’s lottery. Voters rejected a proposal to build a large casino-resort in Southern Maine as recently as 2003.

“This isn’t like putting a casino into someone’s neighborhood,” Merrill said.

A more appropriate comparison, she said, would be with The Cat high-speed ferry service between Portland and Bar Harbor and Novia Scotia and the Scotia Prince before that. Both, Merrill said, subsidized passenger travel with gambling.

“And you don’t hear anybody complaining about them,” she said.

Large in scope, Merrill’s plan could take two or three years to put the pieces in place and then “American entrepreneurship” would move it forward, she said.

Baldacci’s executive order requires the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation to deliver a plan by December.

“I’ve asked for action plan to get year-round scheduled service to Auburn and Brunswick,” Baldacci said. “We may use Amtrak, or we may build a commuter service, but there should be no doubt that we will get there.”


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