In Western Maine we are having a vigorous debate about State of Maine railroad investments. This is similar to last summer’s debate about the state road maintenance budget.

These fights highlight the condition of Maine’s infrastructure. Roads, bridges, rail and airports are critical; we get to work using transportation infrastructure and that is how our products are distributed.

Maine has under-invested in infrastructure for years. The transportation, warehousing, and distribution industries are critical components of the Maine and Western Maine economies.

We must invest in these strategic assets. Highway and bridge repair needs outstrip revenues by at least $2.4 billion over the next 10 years. This funding gap is beyond the existing Maine Department of Transportation responsibilities, which cost $505 million in 2009.

Maine has one of the lowest levels of freight rail shipping in the nation, despite Maine industries like farming, forestry and paper production.

Current revenue is insufficient. The federal highway funding formula grants Maine a similar amount as New Hampshire, a state with a similar population. Unfortunately, Maine’s transportation network is twice as large.

The support of the federal delegation is critical, as we saw from Tuesday’s announcement by Congressman Mike Michaud of a $500,000 investment in the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport. The congressman’s Transportation Committee seat and Senator Susan Collins’ Appropriations Committee seat are very important to Western Maine rail opportunities.

State transportation revenues come largely from gas tax and bond proceeds. From each gallon of gasoline sold, 29 cents is used to maintain state roads, local roads and the Maine State Police. However, as technological improvements and public policy combine for better fuel efficiency, gas tax revenues are less each year than the year before.

Bond money has been the funding source for rail investment. How has Western Maine fared?

Between 2003 and 2006, the state spent $2.46 million to purchase Lewiston land for rail traffic between Lewiston and Brunswick. That investment lays the groundwork for passenger and freight service to Brunswick, and further to Bath Iron Works.

Since 2006, Maine has invested $8,160,172 in the Port of Auburn (28 percent of statewide rail investment during that period). That investment spurred private investment in Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon and Poland.

The distribution industry has grown significantly with the construction or expansion of Bison Transportation, the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, FedEx, UPS, Irving, Midstream Propane, Lynch Logistics, Safe Handling and others

The current debate about rail comes from two sources. The first Maine rail plan is being drafted; it will combine data and public comment, and set priorities for the next 10 years.

Additionally, last February, Maine DOT applied for $204 million in stimulus grants. Western Maine was not included because our “shovel-ready” projects were under $20 million (the threshold for stimulus funding). For many of us, this underscores the need for a state rail plan.

In my opinion, Maine should spend public money on rail projects that will 1) create and retain jobs, 2) create economic growth, 3) leverage existing resources, and 4) lower energy use.

The Lewiston-Auburn legislative delegation is working with municipal leaders, civic leaders and citizens toward four goals: to increase freight traffic at the Port of Auburn, Maine’s largest container port; to begin passenger service between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, connecting Maine’s two largest cities; to begin light rail service between Lewiston and Bath-Brunswick; and to begin passenger service and increase freight traffic along the Auburn-Bethel-Montreal corridor.

The Auburn-Bethel-Montreal corridor is perhaps Maine’s biggest economic development opportunity. It will open tourist and freight rail access to Western Maine from Boston and Montreal.

What happens next?

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, Sens. Deborah Simpson and Margaret Craven, and I sought a meeting with Gov. John Baldacci last week. At that meeting, he underscored his commitment to an Auburn-Bethel-Montreal corridor.

Additionally, Portland-Auburn passenger service is Gov. Baldacci’s priority after the Portland-Brunswick line. For better or for worse, the Portland-Brunswick line has been Maine’s stated policy goal for nine years. Once completed, about half of the track improvements needed for Portland-Auburn passenger service will be done.

MDOT Commissioner David Cole has promised to return to Lewiston-Auburn in January with a strategy for passenger service to Auburn and how to best compete for federal funding.

Finally, it is CRITICAL that the public comment on the state rail plan. Comment online at: Comments submitted there will be part of the record and the raw material for the state rail plan.

Rep. Mike Carey represents downtown Lewiston on the Transportation Committee and in the House of Representatives.

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