The Maine Department of Transportation must realign its priorities when it comes to passenger rail service by focusing on connecting Maine’s population centers and its major hubs of commerce and industry.

It appears the plan, due in draft in January, is poised to cater to the state’s most affluent communities while ignoring major population centers and areas of growth.

The state’s current approach will lead to more wasteful and ineffective spending of federal taxpayer money and, instead of hooking up the state’s primary population centers at Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland, would create a varicose-vein network of deadends.

Maine’s DOT also needs to acknowledge in a meaningful way the people of Lewiston and Auburn who, over the decades, have repeatedly been shortchanged when it comes to statewide transportation policy and infrastructure improvement priorities.

Whether it’s a mis-routed interstate or an excessive and unfair highway toll structure that penalizes those who live here, the people of the Twin Cities will again be treated as second-class passengers if rail improvements are routed around them.

The state is now poised to seek $39 million in federal funds to connect Portland to Brunswick, with extension of the Amtrak Downeaster Line.

It’s a course that defies logic and is in direct conflict with several goals outlined in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan of April 2009.

Connecting the Bath-Brunswick area to Portland
would serve about 29,000 more Maine residents. Upgrading the lines from Auburn, where an inter-modal hub and inland
port for commerce already exist, would extend passenger service to a
community with a population nearly twice that size.

Every other industrialized country in the world that has built
successful railways started by connecting population centers and
then working outward to smaller villages and towns.

In the few short months since the federal plan was released, MDOT has taken a fast-track approach to push forward on a state rail plan that, in its first configuration, bypasses entirely the state’s second-largest metropolitan area.

The plan, touted Monday in Lewiston, seems to be in
defiance of MDOT’s stated goals of not providing recommended
funding sources or funding commitments; the plan as outlined is already
earmarking federal grants for specific rail lines as mentioned above. And Lewiston-Auburn residents are already being told they should
take their seats — someplace behind Brunswick and, perhaps, even behind the
end-of-the-line station of Rockland, on the list for funding.

To be fair, the state plan is a work in progress, so we can remain hopeful MDOT officials will listen to those who took the time to point out better and more appropriate uses of those federal funds.

The idea to stretch a line from Brunswick to Rockland, while nostalgic of a bygone era of tourism by rail, is impractical and unaffordable, given the stated goals of economic development spelled out in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Development of passenger rail in Maine should follow a logical course and not a political one. Trains should go where the people, industry and growth are, not where they are not.

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