“Maine will be carbon-neutral by 2045. And we mean it.”

When Gov. Janet Mills made that statement at the inaugural meeting of the Maine Climate Council in September, it capped an extraordinary set of bold proclamations that Maine is committing to avert climate change.

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition — a longtime group of business and political leaders in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn — lends its support to the council and offers our considered advice toward making Maine carbon-neutral by 2045.

We also wish to congratulate the governor for her leadership on an issue with so much impact on the lives of every Mainer, and for inviting stakeholders to recommend innovative strategies to reach this ambitious goal.

MRTC believes Maine can get fully halfway to its goal of 2045 carbon neutrality utilizing a “silver bullet” solution that also provides economic development, workforce housing, tax relief and quality of life benefits beyond the carbon dividend.

That solution is passenger rail and Maine has a shovel-ready project to link Portland to Lewiston in three to five years. Brunswick, Freeport, Portland, Rockland, Westbrook and Lewiston have all been planning for or seeing the benefits of passenger rail within the last decade. Lewiston/Auburn is next.

The route will launch high-frequency, regularly scheduled hybrid electric passenger trains from Portland Ocean Gateway in the Old Port, along the Eastern Promenade and crossing the B&M Bean swing bridge, with stops in Falmouth, Yarmouth, New Gloucester/Pineland Farms, Auburn and downtown Lewiston.

Linking the downtown centers of Maine’s two largest cities to create a multimodal transit link — reaching from Casco Bay and downtown Portland to Lewiston-Auburn, setting the stage for a Boston-to-Montreal regional super route — makes sense. And it is hardly a new idea.

Many of us remember the Grand Trunk Railway’s summer-only Sunday service between the Old Port and Montreal, as recently as 1967. In the 1920s, multiple companies provided passenger rail to Portland’s Union Station and the India Street terminals.

This infrastructure — an engineering marvel — is still in place, publicly owned, and waiting for an investment to provide mobility, economic development, and housing and employment access, and away from carbon-heavy transportation modes that require more and more upkeep.

Everyone agrees roads have always dominated the transportation discussion — and spending — in Maine, and that we have thus far committed ourselves to an almost exclusively pavement-based transportation system here.

Pavement-based is emissions-heavy, resource extractive, costly to build and rebuild, inefficient for moving people, pollutes waterways, diverts resources from renewables, drives demand for fossil fuels and thus is an untenable path under the bold new Mills carbon initiative.

Simply put, we can’t pave our way out of climate change. And rail has been a largely unconsidered option in Maine’s new climate reality.

As an inclusive first step, we are asking chairperson Hannah Pingree to nominate a rail representative to serve on the 50-member public climate panel.

If given the chance, passenger rail advocates will tell a very compelling story about the benefits of rail for Maine, at a very standard cost in terms of bold public infrastructure.

We will talk about a truly public-private partnership that leverages developers and investors, not public funds. We will talk about making the project long-term sustainable with a bold state bonding program. And we will talk about the vast social costs — including climate change — that Maine will avoid by pursuing rail-centered economic development.

Carbon reduction is but one improvement. Workforce housing, clustered business development, traffic reduction and tourism innovation are all within our grasp if we can escape the car culture that’s harming the climate.

Re-establishing passenger trains between Portland and Lewiston will succeed in part because it takes minimal technical work — the rail is there. The rights of way have been negotiated. Investors are shovel-ready with housing, retail and entertainment development clustered at station sites.

Instead of more and more hot top maintenance paving, suburban strip malls and dying big box retail shells, along with highway budgets that soak up 90% of the federal infrastructure allocation to Maine, we can have a different future.

But only if rail has a seat at the climate table. Because we will never pave our way out of the climate crisis.

Tony Donovan is president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, a coalition of businesses and citizens in Portland, Lewiston and Auburn advocating new passenger rail service linking Lewiston/Auburn to downtown Portland.

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