AUBURN — Heading into the final phase of a feasibility study on establishing a passenger rail connection between Lewiston-Auburn and Portland, committee officials say the decision may come down to how much federal and state subsidy will be available for the project. 

During a City Council workshop Monday, former Councilor Bob Stone said while the study has shown a “latent demand” for a passenger rail connection to Portland, barring “a surprise” he doesn’t believe the Twin Cities will be able to afford the project by themselves.

“I think were pretty much out of surprises,” Mayor Jason Levesque said.

But the update on the committee’s work isn’t all gloom.

The study shows that the potential ridership is there, including riders attracted from areas outside Lewiston-Auburn, and that there are a range of connection options that could bring riders to the Amtrak Downeaster in Portland. 

The second phase of the study, expected to be complete by March 2019, should offer more in-depth answers on the connection locations, service scenarios and infrastructure needs. 

According to Jonathan LaBonte, Auburn’s former mayor who is also serving on the regional committee, a recent field trip with the study consultant looked at potential corridors.

He said there are a “number of conversations” on connections to Portland, including one that could be made via a new corridor alignment along Interstate 295 to the Portland Transportation Center.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority manages the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service from Boston to Maine. Last week, the company announced that expanded train service to Brunswick and Freeport will begin Nov. 12.

An important decision facing the committee is whether the rail service should be an independent feeder service to the Downeaster, or a direct connection to the Downeaster.

At a well-attended public meeting last spring, which attempted to gauge community interest in a rail connection, a majority of the survey respondents said they’d more likely use the Lewiston to Portland connection for leisure reasons. Sporting and entertainment events in Portland and Boston were routinely cited. 

Stone said one of problems “all transit faces is a first mile-last mile issue,” which means how a rider gets from home to the train, and from the train to either a job or other destination.

“We don’t do a good job in Maine at local transportation,” he said. 

A less feasible approach for the service, which would not connect directly to the Downeaster, would come across the rail line near B&M Baked Beans and Tukey’s Bridge, requiring upgrades to the “swing bridge” alongside the highway that’s permanently stuck in the open position. If upgraded, that rail line would connect to downtown Portland on Commercial Street. 

LaBonte said if a Portland connection isn’t feasible, connections to the Downeaster could be made in Yarmouth. 

“There are no answers right now, other than an assessment of corridors,” he said. 

Coming into Lewiston-Auburn, the possible connection locations include near Interstate 95, near the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, and in downtown Lewiston. 

LaBonte said downtown connection locations could come with safety concerns, however, due to grade changes and single-track bridges.

Stone and LaBonte are part of the regional committee that includes officials in Lewiston, Auburn, the Maine Department of Transportation and more stakeholders. 

LaBonte said phase one of the study, which is available online, shows an “interesting number of people who would be coming into Lewiston/Auburn” to take the train, “drawn down to catch transit south.”  

Stone said that while the earlier event in Lewiston showed a “surprising lack of interest in commuting to work,” the two-phase study has also looked at Maine Turnpike travel figures as well as census data on work travel. 

“It’s difficult to pull ridership out of the air. This is not a wild guess,” he said. “We’re giving it a good hard look, it’s not all gut reaction.” 

The study estimates between 600 and 800 daily trips in 2025, numbers that are estimated to rise to between 700 and 1,900 by 2040. 

Stone said once the study is complete this spring, a final report will be turned over to policymakers in Lewiston-Auburn as well as the state Legislature.

He said it will include a “thorough analysis that puts all the numbers on the table,” with the service options and potential capital and subsidies that may be available.  

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