Eileen Coyne of Leeds, left, at a gathering Wednesday at the Lewiston Public Library to gauge interest in creating a passenger rail connection between L-A and the Amtrak Downeaster in Portland. Coyne points to a map as she explains the route that had been traveled by the now-defunct ski train to Bethel. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Dozens of people circled past a series of interactive posters Wednesday, and were asked questions like, “If train service were available between Portland and L-A, would you ride it?”

Stickers signaling “Yes” far outnumbered the “No” responses.

The public-feedback process is part of a study underway to see if connecting the Twin Cities with the Amtrak Downeaster service in Portland is feasible. 

Both cities, along with the Maine Department of Transportation and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, hosted the open house Wednesday at Lewiston Public Library, and were encouraged by the public response.

Just a half-hour into the session, about 100 people were already circling through.

Stephen Houdlette, a data specialist for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said Wednesday’s response looked larger than what they saw in Portland during a similar event the night before.

He said the results of the public feedback will be shown to a consultant working on the study, and that a committee made up of officials from both Lewiston and Auburn will ultimately present recommendations to their respective city councils. 

At the event, questions for participants also centered on how frequently residents travel to Portland or Boston, and for what reasons. 

Among the reasons listed: work, school, medical care, recreation, shopping and travel connections. Most of the early responses centered on recreation and travel.

A number of elected officials and city staff from both cities also participated Wednesday.  

Leading up to the meeting, city officials in Lewiston said the purpose was to identify the need or demand of a passenger rail service connecting residents to Portland “and the broader rail network.”

While previous studies have looked at possible northern connections to Montreal, this study is focused on whether connecting to the Amtrak service is possible.

In order to receive federal funding toward the rail service, an analysis must be done.

As a booklet given those attending the meeting explained, “The first step will be to establish who travels today between Lewiston-Auburn and Portland and who would potentially use an expanded passenger rail service tomorrow.”

The booklet reported that a location for a Lewiston-Auburn station has not yet been identified.

Those attending Wednesday’s session were also asked, “What would make you more likely to ride the train?”

Most of the responses centered on the frequency of service and onboard amenities.

The state previously put up $400,000 toward the study, with Lewiston and Auburn each providing $50,000 for the study to go forward. The initiative was prompted by state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston.

State Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, has also been a proponent of extending passenger rail service to Lewiston. 

In a post on social media last week, Libby encouraged residents to attend Wednesday’s meeting.

“Portland, Biddeford, Brunswick, Freeport and Rockland all have passenger train service today,” Libby said. “Tell NNEPRA and MDOT that the people of Lewiston-Auburn deserve access to the same transportation options.”

Libby has also created an online petition to gather signatures from supporters who could not attend the public meeting. Prior to the gathering, Libby said about 600 people had signed the online petition.

The mayors of both cities previously said they are anxious to hear feedback, but said they are not optimistic that expanded rail service will make sense financially. 

On top of the current study, there is an effort to fund an even larger passenger rail expansion. 

The Maine Legislature is currently considering a $50 million railroad infrastructure bond (LD 590), which would fund an expansion of passenger rail on a state-owned, 30-mile corridor linking Portland to Lewiston-Auburn.

A written statement on the bill read, “Reconstruction of this segment sets the stage for international passenger train service to Canada — linking Montreal to Boston, through Maine’s western mountains.

Last week, advocates of the bill gathered at the State House to press lawmakers for their support. 

“This bill would expand our state’s passenger rail capacity, increase our potential for affordable freight, better connect us to the rest of the world and, in so doing, create badly needed construction jobs,” said Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, the bill’s sponsor.

“By leveraging private and federal dollars when available, we could invest in existing state railways and create a world-class passenger line connecting Maine to Montreal and more of our state to Boston. We are appealingly close to these two super hubs and need to harness the economic energy of these metropolises whenever possible.” 

The current study in Lewiston is also meant to identify needed infrastructure improvements, and how they might be funded. 

The booklet distributed Wednesday said costs will ultimately depend on assessing available rail corridors and track, bridge and grade-crossing conditions. 

Earlier this week, it was announced that the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority canceled plans to expand Amtrak’s Downeaster service from Brunswick to Rockland this summer because it was unable to conduct a risk assessment of the 58 miles of track along the route. 

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