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: [email protected].

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