Albert Einstein allegedly defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Why, then, would Lewiston’s City Council vote to share the $500,000 cost of a study of proposed rail passenger service to Lewiston-Auburn when a thorough analysis was done as recently as 2011?

An exhaustive 108-page report, commissioned by Maine Department of Transportation in cooperation with the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, concluded that an upgraded 18-mile Yarmouth Junction-Lewiston/Auburn link and related facilities would cost $107-234-million.

Like most such studies, the focus was on defining construction costs and operating expenses rather than the more speculative assessment of likely ridership. It theorized that patronage would range from 30,000-46,000 annual trips, based on a schedule of three daily through trains to and from Boston and possible connecting shuttles to Portland.

Estimated annual ticket revenue of $1.0-1.4 million would cover only 15-27 percent of operating expenses, requiring an annual public subsidy of $3.5-$9.4 million. Needless to say, the report was shelved.

What has sufficiently changed in four years to warrant a reassessment of travel demand and associated costs to accommodate it?

Three happenings come to mind:

• authorization of a new Auburn Downtown Transportation Center to serve inter-city and local bus patrons;

• disappointing experience with the 28-mile Portland-Brunswick extension of Amtrak’s Downeaster service in 2012; and

• suspension of containerized rail freight movements to Auburn’s transloading facility for insufficient traffic volume.

Does the same risk exist with an outsized financial commitment to passenger rail?

Against that background, one must question the judgment of the five Lewiston City Council members who voted to appropriate the additional study expenditure from public funds.

Did they review the prior report or speak with any knowledgeable railroad officials? Or were they simply seduced by the thought that others would bear 90 percent of the cost?

On the other hand, Leslie Dubois and her lone colleague on the opposing side deserve commendation for showing a modicum of fiscal sense. Auburn officials are scheduled to hold a workshop on this subject Monday.

Operation of three daily round trips at the minimum levels of projected ridership (30,000) and subsidy ($3.5-million) suggests an average of 82 daily boardings (about 14 per train) requiring public support of $117 per trip.

As with Brunswick, additional revenue beyond Portland falls far short of covering very high operating expense per rider, and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald has acknowledged that the area may not have population density sufficient to support passenger rail.

The inescapable conclusion is that the bus is a far more cost-effective way to test demand for public transportation in inherently light-density markets beyond Portland before considering massive infrastructure investment.

Repeating a definitive and expensive feasibility exercise in the hope of a contradictory outcome can only be a waste of time and money. Promoters’ repetitive reference to Amtrak’s “success” with its Brunswick extension to justify replicating that experience at Lewiston-Auburn is seriously misguided.

Just as the horse goes before the cart, the bus should precede the train in smaller markets such as Brunswick and Lewiston-Auburn.

George Betke Jr. is president of Transport Economics Inc., a Newcastle consultancy.


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