Many of us have likely heard that the road to the Blaine House travels through Lewiston-Auburn. This mystique of the region’s political muscle has been part of the folklore that makes this place great.

However, in light of recent movements by the administration of Gov. John Baldacci, it is clearly time to reassess the playing field and make some tactical changes to how we flex that muscle.

This region hasn’t forgotten Postal Distribution Center-gate at the waning years of a particular Congressional career. And apparently, as we stayed focused on our downtown revival and burgeoning transportation, distribution and logistics industry, and not on the Dome or the Blaine House, we get whacked with Railroad-gate.

For those following the recent developments in the news, the State of Maine has embarked on the development of a statewide rail plan. Plans as recently as 10 years ago put priority on not only bringing train service from Portland to Brunswick, which has all the attention now, but on connecting Boston to Montreal, via Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Bethel.

New England has long desired a connection between major metropolitan regions. Boston, and its over four million residents, being connected to Canada’s second largest urban area of Montreal, and its nearly four million residents, brings significant economic potential to eastern New England.

But, for reasons still unknown, Gov. Baldacci earlier this year signed onto a letter with other Governor’s in northeastern states endorsing a Maine bypass. He agreed that the preferred route to Montreal is no longer into the heart of western Maine, but rather through the state capitals of New Hampshire and Vermont.

With no offense meant to my friends on the coast, Maine has to build our economy on multiple fronts and that means the heart of western Maine must be included. To build our state economy, we must prioritize and leverage the limited dollars, both state and federal, into projects with larger order of magnitude economic impacts. I’d say Boston to Montreal would trump Boston to Brunswick.

By MaineDOT’s own report of 2005, the projected first year ridership numbers by 2015 pegged the Portland to Brunswick route at less than 100,000 riders. Within that number, they projected 240 riders per weekday using the service.

To serve those 240 riders per day, the state is proposing to invest over $30 million in capital and would add at least $2 million annually in operating subsidy to keep the system running. 

Tucked within that same report is a projection of ridership between Lewiston-Auburn and Portland, 150,000 annually.

The report noted a greater annual passenger demand to connect Maine’s two largest urban areas and, in effect, nearly a third of the state’s population, but that did nothing to change the course of this administration.

And even wider gap could be shown, on a merit basis, for the Baldacci Administration’s attempt to push the Mountain Division line from Portland to Fryeburg as the preferred route to western Maine. While MaineDOT professes that nothing is set in stone, most of us know that in government your budget is your priority, and the submission of grant applications to rebuild a state-owned line and not to invest in Lewiston-Auburn and onto to Bethel makes their intentions known.

A 2000 report assessing the Boston to Montreal route, through LA and Bethel, estimated over 700,000 passenger trips from Montreal to Maine alone. No mention of that untapped potential was listed or even discussed in the current proposed plan by the Governor.

Luckily, the battle is not over, and this region is well equipped.

If we need to go dollar for dollar, we can point out the tens of millions of private and public dollars spent to revitalize the Bates Mill complex; the gateway to downtown Lewiston from the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad line.

The Lewiston-Auburn Railroad Company has spent millions of dollars acquiring real estate along the proposed rail corridor, including its ownership of the original Grand Trunk Rail Depot.

Along with private industry, tens of millions of dollars have been spent to leverage our foreign trade zone and growing status as a northeast distribution and logistics hub.

In western Maine, a train station has already been built in Bethel, a premier four reason recreation area, and the local community and businesses support the Mountain Explorer, a bus service that moves visitors from the village area to the mountain resorts.

Lewiston-Auburn, Bethel, and all of western Maine have the assets that could open up an era of significant growth for Maine if we are the primary corridor between the eight million residents of Boston and Montreal.

The time for this region, its business and civic leaders, to come together on this issue and put the political will of our residents to bear on it is now.

And if this Governor doesn’t see the writing on the wall, the candidates to replace him certainly will.

………………………..

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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