LEWISTON — City officials appeared in support Tuesday of proposed legislation that would fund a feasibility analysis toward a passenger rail service between Portland and downtown Lewiston.

While an earlier study looked at three possible service scenarios, the proposed legislation, LD 991, focuses on connecting Lewiston-Auburn to Portland’s Ocean Gateway using the state-owned St. Lawrence & Atlantic Rail Line, which is  inactive.

Previous studies have suggested connecting to the Portland Transportation Center via the Pan Am Rail Line, which is a direct connection to the Amtrak Downeaster and Boston.

Councilors were asked opinions Tuesday on the legislation, with most stating they didn’t have a preference with how the Lewiston to Portland connection is made. They just want to see passenger rail connect the state’s two most populous areas.

Councilor Luke Jensen said he’s “very much in support,” but doesn’t “have much a preference on where it ends up.”

He argued that the Lewiston-Auburn region has “been neglected by the state for some time,” on infrastructure, especially given its status as a service center.

“So if the state wants to bond $250 million for this project, I think it’s just,” he said.

A memo from city staff said the SLR line would deliver passengers within walking distance from the Old Port, but that the direct link to Amtrak would be lost. The project would also require the rebuild of a swing bridge crossing Back Cove near B&M Baked Beans in order to access Ocean Gateway.

According to the recent passenger rail study conducted with the Maine Department of Transportation, and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, using the SLR line is also estimated to be the most expensive construction option, between $241 million and $295 million.

The memo states that the proposal “runs counter to some of the conclusions of the most recent study. Experience shows that communities that come forward with well-conceived plans and a unified voice have greater success in attracting the critical federal support for projects.”

However, Tony Donovan, calling in to Tuesday’s meeting, said the purpose of using the state-owned railroad is that it would allow for the separation of freight rail and passenger rail, meaning freight rail could continue on the Pan Am line while passenger rail could utilize the SLR line.

Donovan said the separation of freight rail and passenger rail “scores high” in federal allocations.

Other councilors, like Safiya Khalid, also said they’re “very much in favor” of pursuing passenger rail. She said municipalities  surrounding Lewiston-Auburn “are a lot of the time forgotten,” and that if other cities step up to support the initiative, “we should as well.”

“It could add such value to this community,” said Councilor Alicia Rea.

Councilor Lee Clement questioned what the local costs would look like for a project of that size, but staff said it’s unknown at this point. Past studies have said the project would have to leverage considerable federal dollars while also including state and local funds.

He said he could see himself supporting a project, but said it needs to be economically feasible.

BATES MILL

No one spoke Tuesday during a public hearing on environmental cleanup work slated for Bates Mill No. 5.

No action was required by the council Tuesday, but the hearing was required as part of a federal Brownfields grant for the mill redevelopment effort.

The hearing centered on several proposed “alternatives” for mitigating the lead paint, asbestos and other contaminants that remain in the property.

Among the cleanup options are replacing the asbestos roof and encapsulating other contaminants, or demolishing the entire building.

Peter Sherr, a representative from consultant Ransom Environmental, said the company reviewed and and discovered gaps in previous environmental studies and recently used funding from the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments to pay for additional investigation.

Sherr said they are using the information to “streamline and create a final cleanup plan,” which must be reviewed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

He said that in either case, the hazardous materials will need to be mitigated. In a reuse, materials can be encapsulated. In demolition, they would have to be removed and disposed of separately.

The city’s Brownfields grant, worth $500,000, must be spent by July 31, 2022. A 30-day public comment period on the cleanup grant will run through April 23.

JUMPSTART ME

Also on Tuesday, the council voiced its support for a proposed business incubator competition developed by the Downtown Lewiston Association and the LA Metro Chamber.

The program would incentivize qualified start-ups, or growing businesses to relocate or expand in downtown Lewiston by reducing the startup costs associated with such a move.

According to a council memo, the organizers are working with the Szanton Company to focus the project on the available retail space in The Hartley Block at 155 Lisbon St.

The winner of the competition would receive one year rent-free in the space as well as contributions from local businesses for accounting, legal, and branding and marketing.

Michael Dostie, board chairman of the downtown association, said the pandemic was devastating to the business community, but that the coming year is the perfect opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs “to explore opportunities that were put on hold.”

The organizers requested up to $10,000 in funding from the city, which will be decided during upcoming budget negotiations.

Councilors appeared excited by the proposal, and said it could be focused on other downtown areas in future years.

Councilor Jensen said he supported giving more city funds to the downtown association, but questioned why The Hartley Block needed the extra attention after receiving tax-increment financing funds from the city as part of the development.

Dostie said he expects more details on the program will be announced in the coming weeks.

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