Long before the first Downeaster started down the tracks to Portland, Twin Cities leaders imagined those trains coming home.

Trains
have always been a part of Lewiston-Auburn’s history, after all. They
fed the mills, spread products with a Bates brand around the world and
brought the French-Canadian immigrants who would call the cities home.

”We
really started in the 1990s, because we knew that’s where the future
was,” said Roland Miller, Auburn’s Economic Development Director. “We
see ourselves as a central part of the transportation planning for the
entire state. It’s that important.”

That’s why Miller and other
local officials reacted with surprise earlier this month when a state
Railroad planning document was released with less emphasis on
Lewiston-Auburn rail than they felt it deserved.

“The real opportunity for state economic development comes from utilizing the routes and the infrastructure you have before investing and building new ones, from scratch,” said County Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte. “But that’s what this plan seems to do. It seems to bypass us.”

Even worse,
applications for federal stimulus money skipped right past Twin Cities
rail projects that have long been on the planning board — including a
planned train-air-bus station at the Auburn Lewiston Municipal Airport
and passenger-grade track improvements between Auburn and the crucial
junction north of Yarmouth.

“I can’t figure out what they’re doing,” Miller said. “It doesn’t make sense, just based on all the work we’ve done so far.”

But
state transportation officials said its not as bad as it looks for the Twin
Cities.

Just because Lewiston and Auburn are not in the most current state budget for improving passenger rail service in Maine doesn’t mean they’ve been forgotten.

MDOT Commissioner David Cole said the projects Maine put on the table recently — including upgrades that will bring the Amtrak Downeaster to Freeport and Brunswick —  were basically “shovel ready.”

“If there had been a project ready to go in Lewiston-Auburn that met the criteria we certainly would have included it in the mix that went down to Washington,” Cole said.

After Brunswick, extending passenger service to Auburn has and remains the priority for the department, Cole said.

But the state’s wish list also included a $28-million request to reactivate and rebuild a 30-mile stretch of state-owned track from Portland to Fryeburg named the Mountain Division.

The goal for that, according to the DOT’s rail expert Nathan Moulton, is to reduce truck traffic on Route 130 and allow aggregate and quarry businesses in the corridor an easy way to get their goods to port in Portland. The application for funds also highlights the potential that line could have for excursion passenger service.

The Brunswick Downeaster and the Mountain Division train essentially were dusted-off plans that seemed to best fit the criteria for the federal funds, Moulton said.

“In large part, we got lucky,” Moulton said.

And with no active state rail plan at the time the federal funds were made available, officials scramblied to to meet strict deadlines and get projects they believed would compete for the limited federal funds.

In one case more than $100 billion worth of requests is competing for less than $2 billion in available funding. In the other $55 billion in projects from around the country are competing for about $8 billion in funding.

 With such stiff competition, there’s no guarantee that Maine will see stimulus money for either project.

“We were disappointed when news about the stimulus requests came out,” said  State Representative Mike Carey, D-Lewiston. Carey serves on the state transportation committee. For Carey, the most crucial step for local rail is the state’s ten year plan.

“And what matters most is that we know that our projects are in that plan,” Carey said. The final plan is due in January, and Carey said he’s and other delegates have been assured that upgrades to Lewiston-Auburn bound tracks will be included.

One potential would be track upgrades between Yarmouth Junction and Auburn section, costing an estimated $20 million, Jack Clifford, a Lewiston resident and Lisbon Falls-based attorney serving on the board of directors for Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the quasi-state agency which operates the Amtrak Downeaster, said.

Clifford and NNEPRA chairman Martin Eisenstein, an Auburn resident and Lewiston-based attorney, said they are advocates for getting the Downeaster to Auburn. The fastest way for that to happen is to ensure the Brunswick connection gets made and includes an important reconfiguration of the track in Yarmouth that allows passenger trains to make the turn to Auburn.

Both men acknowledge the frustration local people have in not seeing Twin Cities passenger service sooner.

“But to me, the fastest way to get the Auburn project is get to Yarmouth in the first place,” Clifford said. “This gets us there. We needed the Brunswick project first, before Auburn could move forward.”

Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA’s executive director, said the original goal was to get the line from Portland to Brunswick running by 2004. Funding for upgrades, which until the stimulus monies became available, was a State Legislative issue and was slow in coming. Quinn said even the annual state and federal subsidies the service from Portland to Boston depends on has been vulnerable to politics.

Quinn also emphasized that taking people from Boston to Brunswick was always meant as a way to help boost tourism, Maine’s biggest industry. When the plan was first made Freeport was the second most visited destination for tourists and a stop on the line there seemed natural, Quinn said.

“I think there would be more potential for people to get on the train and come to Freeport for a day of shopping or an overnight than to Lewiston-Auburn,” Quinn said. 

Beyond the track upgrade, Quinn said a stop in Lewiston-Auburn by the Downeaster would require another train, which would add to the $20 million of the track upgrade. The current configuration to Brunswick will fully utilizes all the existing passenger equipment on the line.

Storage for those trains, when they are not in service is also another conundrum NNEPRA is wrestling with, Quinn said.

Both Quinn and Cole said getting the Auburn stretch of track ready for the next big round of federal funding includes getting local and legislative support for the idea.

 Funding the studies and the engineering needed to have a viable application for federal funds ready to go is also key, Quinn said.

“Getting it engineered, deciding what the capital costs are, determining what the subsidy and how it is going to be paid for … ” are all things that will have to be factored in and figured out, she said. Environmental impact studies for the upgrade will also need to be completed and all that costs money, Quinn said.

The studies for the upgrade to Brunswick cost an estimated $500,000 she said.

“We need to lock in some kind of a mechanism to put a pool of funds together that rail and transit services can use and build a capital pool for rail,” Quinn said.

In December state lawmakers from Lewiston and Auburn met with Gov. Baldacci who in turn reiterated the goals for connecting passenger service to Auburn, both the lawmakers and Cole have said.

“Assurances have been made, that Auburn is the very next priority,” Androscoggin County Commissioner LaBonte said. “That’s good, if you can trust those assurances.”

LaBonte sees an active effort by coastal communities to make sure their transportation priorities were met. Maine’s central mountain communities need the same thing if they hope to compete for transportation dollars.

“If we don’t they’ll find a way to go right around us,” Labonte said. “Lewiston-Auburn on its own won’t work. We need Bethel, and we need the mountain communities every bit as much as they need us.”

Prior to the federal funds being made available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the plan was to borrow the money to extend passenger service to Brunswick, Cole said.

In December Maine Department of Transportation staff hosted a public meeting in Auburn, seeking ideas and suggestions for an on-going effort to develop a statewide rail development plan.


The meeting, according to state officials, was to share information and to get community input about how to determine where rail development and re-development should occur. The state also shared information about pending requests under federal stimulus funding for projects in Maine.

Staff Writer Scott Taylor also contributed to this story.

[email protected]

Conductor Brad Ritter, second from left, watches as people disembark from the Amtrak Downeaster after its arrival in Portland Wednesday. Many people in the Lewiston/Auburn area have expressed a desire to have a passenger rail service between the twin cities and Boston.

The Amtrak Downeaster arrives at the station in Portland from Boston on Wednesday morning.

The Amtrak Downeaster symbol.

The Amtrak Downeaster waits to board passengers after arriving in Portland on Wednesday.

The Amtrak Downeaster approaches the Portland station Wednesday morning.

A freight train crosses at Danville Junction, which is being upgraded this Spring.

Danny Sigurdson, of Bath, buys a train ticket from agent Nanci Seliga between Boston and New York City as he returns there after the Christmas holiday.

Long before the first Downeaster started down the tracks to Portland, Twin Cities leaders imagined the train coming here.

Trains have long been a part of Lewiston-Auburn’s history, after all. They fed the mills, spread products with a Bates brand around the world and brought the French-Canadian immigrants who would call the cities home.

“The goal now is the same as it was then, to establish a central Maine logistical hub,” said Roland Miller, Auburn’s Economic Development director. “That’s the program we’ve pursued from the beginning, and the understanding has been that hub is in Auburn, both locally and on a state level. And, logically, if that is your goal, upgrading the rail here is critical.”

That’s why Miller and other local officials reacted with surprise earlier this month when a state railroad planning document was released with less emphasis on Lewiston-Auburn rail than they felt it deserved.

“The real opportunity for economic development comes from utilizing the routes and the infrastructure you have, before investing and building new ones from scratch,” said Androscoggin County Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte. “That’s not what this plan seems to do. It seems to bypass us.”

Even worse, applications for federal stimulus money skipped right past Twin Cities rail projects that have long been on the planning board, including a train-air-bus station at the Auburn Lewiston Municipal Airport and passenger-grade track improvements between Auburn and a crucial junction north of Yarmouth.

“If their decisions were based on solid business planning, those applications are not what we’d be doing,” Miller said. “This looks less like solid economic planning for the future and more like political decisions.”

But state transportation officials said its not as bad as it looks for the Twin Cities.

Just because Lewiston and Auburn are not in the most current state budget for improving passenger rail service in Maine doesn’t mean they’ve been forgotten, they say.

Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Cole said the projects Maine put on the table recently — including upgrades that will bring the Amtrak Downeaster to Freeport and Brunswick — were basically “shovel ready.”

“If there had been a project ready to go in Lewiston-Auburn that met the criteria, we certainly would have included it in the mix that went down to Washington,” Cole said.

After Brunswick, extending passenger service to Auburn has and remains the priority for the department, Cole said.

But the state’s wish list also included a $28 million request to reactivate and rebuild a 30-mile stretch of state-owned track from Portland to Fryeburg named the Mountain Division.

The goal for that, according to DOT rail expert Nathan Moulton, is to reduce truck traffic on Route 130 and allow aggregate and quarry businesses in the corridor an easy way to get their goods to port in Portland. The application for funds also highlights the potential that line could have for excursion passenger service.

The Brunswick Downeaster and the Mountain Division train essentially were dusted-off plans that seemed to best fit the criteria for the federal funds, Moulton said.

“In large part, we got lucky,” he said.

And with no active state rail plan in place at the time the federal funds were made available, officials scrambled to meet strict deadlines and get projects they believed would compete for the limited federal funds.

Brunswick’s $53 million Downeaster project is just one of $55 billion worth of requests nationwide competing for $8 billion in federal money under the High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program. The $28 million Mountain Division proposal is competing against $100 billion in similar projects around the country for $1.5 billion in grants from the Transportation Investments to Generate Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. Both the HSIPR and TIGER programs are part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

With such stiff competition, there’s no guarantee Maine will see stimulus money for either project.

“We were disappointed when news about the stimulus requests came out,” said state Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston. Carey serves on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. For Carey, the most crucial step for local rail is inclusion in the state’s 10-year plan. The final plan is due in January, and Carey said he and other delegates have been assured that upgrades to Lewiston-Auburn-bound tracks will be in the plan.

One hope is for track upgrades between Yarmouth Junction and Auburn, costing an estimated $20 million, according to Jack Clifford, a Lewiston resident and Lisbon Falls attorney serving on the board of directors for Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA). The authority is the quasi-state agency that operates the Amtrak Downeaster.

Clifford and NNEPRA Chairman Martin Eisenstein, an Auburn resident and Lewiston attorney, said they are advocates for getting the Downeaster to Auburn. The fastest way for that to happen is to ensure the Brunswick connection gets made and includes an important reconfiguration of the track in Yarmouth that allows passenger trains to make the turn to Auburn.

Both men acknowledge the frustration local people have in not seeing Twin Cities passenger service sooner.

“But to me, the fastest way to get the Auburn project is get to Yarmouth in the first place,” Clifford said. “This gets us there. We needed the Brunswick project first, before Auburn could move forward.”

Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA’s executive director, said the original goal was to get the line from Portland to Brunswick running by 2004. Funding for upgrades has been in the state’s hands and slow in coming until the stimulus monies became available. Quinn said even the annual state and federal subsidies for the existing rail service from Portland to Boston have been vulnerable to politics.

Quinn also emphasized that taking people from Boston to Brunswick was always meant as a way to help boost tourism, Maine’s biggest industry. When the plan was first made, Freeport was the second-most-visited destination for tourists, and a stop on the line there seemed natural, she said.

“I think there would be more potential for people to get on the train and come to Freeport for a day of shopping or an overnight than to Lewiston-Auburn,” Quinn said.

Beyond the $20 million track upgrade, Quinn said a stop in Lewiston-Auburn by the Downeaster would require another train, adding to the cost. The current configuration to Brunswick will fully utilize all the existing passenger equipment on the line.

But others feel that investing in a Portland-to-Auburn rail link would have proven benefits beyond the potential ridership to and from the Lewiston-Auburn area. Miller cited the benefits a link would provide between Portland/Boston and Maine’s mountain communities for winter recreation and tourism.

Beyond that, passenger rail to L-A makes a potential link to Quebec a real possibility, Miller said, adding that’s where the real benefit begins. A 2000 Longwoods Associates study surveyed Quebecers and found 800,000 potential passenger train riders who would travel south annually to or through Maine via Lewiston-Auburn.

“That’s a positive benefit that we can point to, that no other transportation infrastructure project has,” Miller said.

And any passenger rail improvements would mean better freight lines between Boston, Portland, Auburn and through western Maine to Canada, he said.

“That’s a real business model,” Miller said. “It’s using public money in a way that is going to pay off for the entire state, not just a single region.”

Both Quinn and Cole said that getting the proposed Auburn track ready for the next big round of federal funding includes getting local and legislative support for the idea. Funding the studies and engineering needed to have a viable application for federal funds ready to go is key, Quinn said.

“Getting it engineered, deciding what the capital costs are, determining what the subsidy is and how it is going to be paid for” are all things that will have to be factored in and figured out, she said. Environmental impact studies for the upgrade will also need to be completed, and all that costs money, Quinn said. The studies for the upgrade to Brunswick cost an estimated $500,000.

“We need to lock in some kind of a mechanism to put a pool of funds together that rail and transit services can use, and build a capital pool for rail,” Quinn said.

Quinn said about 30 percent of the 170,000 Downeaster passenger trips that started or ended in Portland in 2009 originated from outside the city. NNEPRA plans to conduct additional passenger surveys to better determine where Downeaster riders are coming from, Quinn said.

How much demand there is for passenger rail service to and from Auburn remains unclear, but so far state studies show commuter rail services in Maine are not financially self-sustaining between any two cities in the state, according to Susan Moreau, a senior transit policy specialist for the state.

Moreau said that doesn’t mean demand won’t grow in the coming decade as rail and other transportation options change, particularly if a Downeaster extension to Brunswick gets passenger rail closer to Auburn.

“We are looking at the stations and where the people are and whether it makes sense to go into a community or deal with a park-and-ride lot,” Moreau said. “We are not going to have to start over again. We are going to build on this, the same way we are going to build on transportation from Portland to Yarmouth Junction with the line on to Brunswick.”

In December state lawmakers from Lewiston and Auburn met with Gov. John Baldacci, who, in turn, reiterated the goal of connecting passenger service to Auburn.

“Assurances have been made that Auburn is the very next priority,” said County Commissioner LaBonte. “That’s good, if you can trust those assurances.”

LaBonte sees an active effort by coastal communities to make sure their transportation priorities were met. He said Maine’s central and western communities need to do the same thing if they hope to compete for transportation dollars.

“If we don’t, they’ll find a way to go right around us,” LaBonte said. “Lewiston-Auburn on its own won’t work. We need Bethel, and we need the mountain communities every bit as much as they need us.”

[email protected]

[email protected]


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