There are two sides to fiscal responsibility: knowing where to cut and where to invest.

The most fiscally responsible investments governments at any level can make are investments in infrastructure to create the foundation for business to thrive.

I believe that the single most important economic investment the state of Maine could make right now would be to invest in passenger rail service between Maine’s two largest population centers — Portland and Lewiston-Auburn.

The data is clear that the Amtrak Downeaster from Kittery to Brunswick has been an economic success.

More than 500,000 riders a year include commuters, students and visitors, spending millions of dollars in communities all along the coast. My colleagues at chambers of commerce in Biddeford, Brunswick and Freeport are excited. Passenger rail service has been a tremendous economic driver for coastal, southern Maine.

It’s time to bring those economic benefits to the rest of the state. Three bills before the Legislature would lay the groundwork for passenger rail service from Portland to the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Some of those proposals have been seen before, but I am hopeful that in the new pro-business climate, the bills will pass.

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, has proposed LD 323, a bill to complete the environmental and engineering studies necessary for passenger rail to come to Lewiston-Auburn. The estimated cost is about $1 million, but that is what it would take to create a shovel-ready project.

If Maine takes the time and the money to build a plan, then it becomes a lot easier to convince private and public investors that it’s safe to take the next step and build out the lines. Keep in mind that the state already owns the lines — the most expensive part of the project.

We’re not utilizing this state investment because there hasn’t been enough political support in Augusta to make passenger rail to Lewiston-Auburn a reality. Golden’s bill would finish the planning process and bring passenger rail one step closer.

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, has introduced LD 438, a $25 million bond proposal to fund construction of key pieces of the line, as well as other railroad infrastructure projects at the discretion of the Maine Department of Transportation. The potential return on investment is huge for local businesses and the people of Maine.

Not all the funding can or will come from the state.

Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, has a third bill, LD 247, to allow innovative local funding options through the creation of corridor transit districts.

We need more flexibility to create public-private partnerships at the local level to fund transportation infrastructure. LD 247 increases local flexibility and control to help cities such as Lewiston and Auburn and the surrounding towns have more independence in the decision-making process about future transportation infrastructure.

This is an investment in our economic future.

We talk a lot about the brain drain, and one way to attract young people to live and work in Maine is to increase job opportunities.

Passenger rail attracts private economic investment and creates jobs locally. It increases commuter options to create flexibility for employers and workers alike.

The public has enjoyed low gasoline prices this winter, but everyone knows those are temporary. Rail between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn would create a viable alternative for people traveling back and forth.

I’m hoping to ride the train from Lewiston to Boston and back again some time in the next five years. Within 10 years, I hope to ride the train to Montreal, and I’d really like to see some of the Canadian tourist dollars flowing into Lewiston-Auburn.

You can’t get there from here yet. With the right vision in Augusta, maybe soon we can.

Charles “Chip” Morrison is president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce in Lewiston.


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