The hot political issue of this new year, in greater Lewiston-Auburn and western Maine, will likely continue to be rail investment.

With two very well attended, and at times very heated, public meetings locally with the Maine Department of Transportation behind us, it might be easier to see this as a David versus Goliath tale; the always-kicked residents of Lewiston-Auburn versus big bad bureaucrats in Augusta.

It is a well known battle cry, heard repeatedly since I’ve returned to this community and apparently in play for decades before that. But it can’t always be Augusta’s fault, can it?

The lack of coherent, and strategic, statewide economic development and infrastructure policy is certainly a hurdle and one that will obviously have to wait until a new administration is in place in early 2011. In the interim, however, nothing would stop a region from crafting its own strategic plan for coordinating local efforts to advance infrastructure investment and job creation.

While some may not enjoy the notion of planning for planning’s sake, clearly the inability of this region to articulate a vision backed by solid data and strategic advantages is not Augusta’s fault; it is our own.

There is hardly a hesitation to attend the next ribbon-cutting in the region and herald it as proof that “it’s happening here,” but where have our elected and appointed officials at the local level been the past 10 years to position us for these possible investments?

If we take a close look in the mirror, we might uncover some faults of our own that must be addressed, or passenger service to Portland and Montreal may be an empty battle cry.

To fully leverage passenger and commuter rail services, a region needs to have additional amenities such as bus transit and safe walking and bicycling facilities. So what is the plan to encourage multi-modal movement, and sustainable development, in Lewiston-Auburn?

This column space has referenced volumes of studies that show how communities oriented to “smart growth” have been the leaders in wealth creation and investment attraction in this 21st century knowledge-based economy.

Typically, the first place to look is downtown master plans or comprehensive plans. Unfortunately, the last shared plan created about 10 years ago was moved to a shelf to gather dust. Attempts last year to revive shared views of the downtown to maximize economic growth and livability, for reasons of ego, led both city councils to walk away.

As many know, the line from Montreal connects to downtown Lewiston-Auburn and ends at the old Grand Trunk Depot, running along a line owned by the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. Is there a plan to reopen that depot as a passenger station and further into a hub for connections to local bus services?

The rail depot sits empty. We’ve built playgrounds on the rail line. And our bus hub is currently on Oak Street.

The most recent study of the local bus service funded by the two cities made no mention of interconnections to future rail service. Add to that the current operation of business hours only, Monday through Friday, and it is hard to understand the current heated debate when leaders have expressed no interest in preparing current transit services to leverage rail.

While there are proposals on the table that could enhance the bus service, advocated by groups like the Visible Community that fight for an increase in downtown livability, the previous council spent two years making no real change.

Bus service aside, the walking conditions of downtown don’t hold much promise either, at the moment. When Lewiston removed traffic lights at Cedar and Oxford streets, to make car movement easier, they also stopped painting crosswalks to connect Little Canada at that same intersection.

Ever tried crossing Lisbon Street near Andover College? It is often an exercise in taking your life into your own hands. In fact, the standalone “yield to pedestrian” signs meant to slow vehicles have been moved to the side of the street because vehicles traveling too fast were striking them in the crosswalks.

The same walking danger goes for Mill Street in New Auburn, Lincoln Street in Lewiston and so many others.

The grandstanding for rail would seem less disingenuous if local voices had been fighting for sustainable development in our community for the last 10 years.

Instead, the focus of local leaders on transportation has been how to get a new Turnpike interchange for both cities, without regard for its actual, rather than perceived, benefit to the community. And we all know the tens of millions of dollars spent in redundant parking spaces in our new garages because of an arbitrary formula based on 1950’s driving habits.

The new year’s resolution for the region should be this: Rather than continue to beat on bureaucrats, let’s focus locally to get our house in order and focus on how to build a sustainable community that could fully leverage an enhanced rail asset.

There’s an opportunity for our new city councils to do this, and to direct the appointed leaders to follow suit.

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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