AUBURN — Economic development and community building are great reasons to build inter-city commuter lines — but they are not reasons for the federal government to invest.

“We need to put the best case forward we can based on scientific data,” said Maine Department of Transportation’s Sue Moreau, program manager for the Portland North project. “That’s what they’re going to be looking at, and they’ll take it and compare it with other projects around the country.”

Moreau’s group has spent the past 18 months studying commuter patterns north of Portland with an eye toward applying for Federal Transit Authority Small Starts grant money this summer.

The science in those reports says that a new commuter line — whether it’s a bus line or a rail line — would be more cost-effective connecting Portland to Bath-Brunswick than connecting Portland to Lewiston-Auburn.

That was not what the 40 people attending a public presentation at Auburn Hall wanted to hear.

“We’ve been subsidizing the sprawl of Portland along the coast for a number of years,” Androscoggin County Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte said. “We’ve created sprawl through poor planning, both transportation and land use, and we’re going to follow that up by creating a subsidized commuter system to chase those same commuters on a free highway. That sounds ridiculous to me.”

Moreau said the study was not finished and no conclusions had been drawn. They won’t be until the group finishes the study in June. They’ll schedule a second public meeting in Portland in April and a third in Brunswick in May as the work continues. The group expects to apply for FTA money in June.

The plan is considering several options. It could support a rail program — using existing freight tracks to either Brunswick or Auburn — or it could promote creating a rapid-transit regional bus system using breakdown lanes on either Interstate 95 to Auburn or Interstate 295 to Brunswick.

The path to Lewiston-Auburn, whether for bus or train, would be longer. That means the program would be more expensive to build and to operate. A train system to Brunswick could be built on top of a $35 million federal Amtrak expansion announced in January, making it more cost-effective.

“We’d be able to stand on the shoulders of that Amtrak investment,” said David Nelson, a transit planner working for the state.

The study also looked at the number of people commuting into Portland today and used population forecasts to determine where commuters would come from in the future. It forecast 1,625 commuters would use a system between Lewiston-Auburn and Portland by 2035. Twice as many, 3,252, would use a commuter system between Bath-Brunswick and Portland.

But that’s where L-A residents and transit officials disagreed. State Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, said the study didn’t take the number of Lewiston-Auburn residents who don’t have cars into account. Those people can’t get to Portland to today but would if they had transportation options, he said.

LaBonte said a commuter system would be an economic boon wherever it’s built.

“With all due respect to the coastal communities, who have been quite successful, there comes a time when inland Maine and more impoverished areas need to see some investment that will create an opportunity for economic growth,” he said.

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