We need

a vision now

for rail tomorrow

By Jonathan LaBonte

The politics of the timing aside, the announcement this week that Maine has successfully secured federal dollars to invest in rail upgrades for passenger service should be celebrated. While it has been seen as contentious, with Lewiston-Auburn jockeying for position to secure money of its own, the groundwork laid in Freeport and Brunswick over the last decade has made this a no-brainer. 

And in a competitive environment nationally, that groundwork likely made the difference. For those carrying the vision of downtown rail service here, the lesson learned should be to build a similar foundation to ensure we are equally competitive, and successful, in future funding opportunities. 

The $35 million announcement over the last week will bring the Downeaster train from Portland, through Yarmouth Junction, and on to stops at Freeport and Brunswick. For advocates here in Maine’s second largest urban area, this should come as good news, as the route to Lewiston-Auburn must go through Yarmouth. 

In Freeport, Maine’s shopping mecca, a town-based Train Committee has led local discussions about the location of a train stop, signage, parking and other components of how the train would fit into the economic development vision for the community. This is a clear recognition that, while state and federal officials often control the process for rail investment, local context and planning is possibly the most important element. 

Downstream of Lewiston-Auburn, in the town of Brunswick, the same type of advance discussions have set the stage for this pending investment. Real estate investors have come forward with plans for mixed-use projects to place retail, offices and residential units around a new train station. Those efforts have allowed the community picture the train’s arrival before it has even left Portland on its maiden voyage. 

During a recent press conference, Bowdoin College President Barry Mills highlighted the importance of a downtown Brunswick station and how it would help the campus be less geographically isolated. 

And so, as we have hoped, those leading rail planning at the state level are recognizing that after Brunswick comes Auburn. Unfortunately, unlike Freeport and Brunswick, public discussion to envision the train’s arrival in our downtown has not begun and must now if we are to see it happen. 

Museum LA, in what will surely be an iconic project for generations to come, is laying out the vision for its new home in the Camden Yarns Mill on the riverfront. How will this site interact with passenger rail service, given its place abutting the line in Lewiston’s grand entryway for the old Grand Trunk rail line?

The Lewiston-Auburn Railroad Company owns the historic rail depot on Lincoln Street, where perhaps hundreds of thousands of passenger trips once occurred connecting Lewiston to Montreal, Boston, Chicago and so many other destinations in the United States and Canada. A federal grant was just awarded to start renovations. 

Does the current plan of the railroad company to lease the building for a restaurant fit into the community vision for passenger rail?  If the train arrives in downtown Lewiston, where would passengers go to get tickets, where would they get information on what to see and do? 

Millions of dollars have been spent on playgrounds and trails in downtown along the rail corridor and new opportunities for trail expansions are on the horizon. If we are to bring rail back to downtown, how might trails and parks exist in harmony with rail service? In other parts of Maine, putting rails alongside trails has been seen as quite contentious. Might Lewiston-Auburn be leaders in how to make this possible? 

And just as Bowdoin College sought to address its perceived isolation, our own prestigious liberal arts college, Bates, could equally benefit from such a connection for its faculty and staff, prospective and current students and visitors. In fact, given their recognition as one of the national leaders in environmental stewardship, becoming a “car-less” institution could be within reach with rail. 

Of course, it’s not just passenger service on the route from the Airport into downtown, as freight operators like Savage Safe Handling grow our tax base by leveraging rail for transportation purposes. What are the needs and opportunities for expanding freight service on that corridor and how might that growth dovetail with investment to bring people into our downtown? 

There are lots of interests, lots of stories to be told, and all the right ingredients to paint a picture of the train’s arrival. But each of those stories are told independently of the other. The time is right to convene stakeholders to plan for the rail into downtown, and to make a very public and open process.

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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