AUBURN — City councilors are picking sides on the issue of whether Lewiston-Auburn rail service, if built, should go downtown or stop at the Auburn Lewiston Municipal Airport.

Councilors last week added an amendment to the city budget saying a downtown location is the favorite spot for new rail service and directing staff and regional boards and business development groups to treat downtown train service as a priority.

Now Councilor Mary Lafontaine said she’s prepared to undo that amendment.

“I don’t know which is the right location, or which makes sense, but I think it’s most important for everyone to hear both sides,” Lafontaine said. “We can’t make a full decision unless we investigate all of our options.”

One plan, promoted by the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, would send passenger rail from Portland to the Auburn airport before continuing north, to Bethel and on to Montreal.

Chip Morrison, executive director of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, said it made sense to use that state investment to help the Twin Cities.

“We’ve been working toward that goal for 20 years,” Morrison said. “For Maine’s economy as a whole, connecting Boston to Portland to Montreal through Auburn is a huge economic stimulus.”

The coalition’s current plan would bring the train along St. Lawrence and Atlantic’s rail line, running from India Street in Portland through Falmouth, downtown Yarmouth, New Gloucester and ending in Auburn.

But Councilor Joshua Shea said another option would be to run passenger service alongside the freight service on the Pan-Am rail lines between Portland’s Transportation Center north to downtown Auburn.

“The airport makes sense as a port,” Shea said. “It makes good sense when you are talking commercial and freight. But it doesn’t make sense for bringing people, commuters and visitors, here.”

Shea and Mayor Jonathan LaBonte have been promoting that idea with an online petition at Change.org. The petition has been online for more than a week and by Thursday evening collected almost 200 signatures.

“It doesn’t make sense to send the train out to the airport unless you live by the airport,” Shea said. “Right now, you have people who want to see changes in the downtown and want an urban center and want to be able to go to Portland and Boston by walking from their downtown apartment. And we’d love to have people from there to come here. And if they come here, they’ll want to come downtown — not to the airport.”

Morrison said a train could end up coming downtown, but it doesn’t make sense to shut out other possible developments.

“If nothing can be done with rail until we serve downtown, that’s terribly shortsighted,” Morrison said. “What other opportunities are we going to be passing up?”

But LaBonte disagreed.

“We’ll never get a train with that attitude,” LaBonte said. “We need to say where we want it, and then go get it.”

LaBonte said that a united effort to get the train to one location will convince state and federal transportation leaders that Lewiston-Auburn is serious about the issue.

“By being wishy-washy we let everyone have their own position,” LaBonte said. “Our legislators don’t know what position to advocate for. Our congressional delegates don’t know what we went. And it’s true, those that do know what they want get it.”

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