Getting a passenger rail system through the heart of central Maine is a key to encouraging development and making sure cities in the region don’t miss out, some local officials say.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor. Maine State Democrats

They brought that message Monday to a virtual forum at which advocates discussed a proposal to study the feasibility of bringing a passenger rail line to Augusta, Waterville and Bangor.

“The corridor of the state from Brunswick north really feels left out,” state Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, said Monday afternoon when politicians, business people and rail advocates came together for the forum hosted by the nonprofit Maine Rail Group on Monday. “Having a commuter rail service that’s safe and clean coming up through Augusta and Waterville and Bangor would be a great plus for our region.”

In the legislature, Baldacci is sponsoring bill LD 227 —”To Conduct a Feasibility Study for Extending Passenger Rail Service from Brunswick through Augusta and Waterville to Bangor.”  It is co-sponsored by a half-dozen peers, including Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, and Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta.

The cost for the one-time feasibility study and plan to implement passenger rail service from Brunswick through Augusta, Waterville and Bangor is estimated to cost $300,000. The bill suggests using money from the highway fund for fiscal year 2021-22. City councils in Bangor, Brewer and Waterville endorsed the bill.

LD 227 has yet to be formally heard, but will be hosted by the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee likely later this month or in early May. The committee’s co-chairs, Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham and Rep. Roland “Danny” Martin, D-Sinclair, will schedule the meeting. A date and time will be posted online for an initial hearing with a work session scheduled for one week later.

Richard Rudolph, chairperson of the Rail Users’ Network and director of Maine Rail Group, moderated the forum Monday. He conducted a video interview with Augusta-based developer Richard Parkhurst. An investor in properties on Water Street, Parkhurst said in a recorded statement that he believes connecting central Maine with Portland and Boston would encourage development.

“Passenger rail would minimize the need for additional parking and reduce inner-city traffic while encouraging future growth in the city center,” Parkhurst said.

The state’s existing passenger rail service, the Amtrak’s Downeaster, makes six stops in Maine from Brunswick to Wells before going through New Hampshire and Massachusetts with a final stop in Boston’s North Station. There are plans to expand the service to Rockland, according to Amtrak’s 2035 vision plan. The former Maine Central Railroad’s passenger service disbanded in 1960.

Jim Dinkle, executive director of FirstPark in Oakland. Contributed photo

Kennebec Regional Development Authority and FirstPark Executive Director James Dinkle said his interest in bringing passenger rail to the area is two-fold. He appreciates the idea of passenger rail serving as an alternative for the approximately 1,100 workers at the park, perhaps offering a shuttle for the nearly 3 miles between the park and Waterville’s rail yard. CSX, one of the biggest railroads in the country, is taking over the state’s tracks formerly owned by Pan Am Railways. It is unclear how the transaction impacts Waterville.

“We’re watching this with keen interest,” Dinkle said. “To me, this is good for a lot of things. For job transportation and mobility. It’s also good for tourism, which is a form of economic development.”

Another bill in the legislature, LD 1370 — An Act to Establish Trail Until Rail Corridors, would authorize multi-use trail construction on four state-owned rail corridors not currently being used. Included in the bill, which is sponsored primarily by Rep. Arthur L. Bell, D-Yarmouth, is the 26-mile Merrymeeting Trail, which would connect the 6.5-mile Gardiner to Augusta Kennebec River Trail with the 2.6-mile Brunswick to Bath Androscoggin River Bicycle Path. According to the Maine Trails Coalition, none of the four projects in the bill interfere with the possibility for expanded rail service through central Maine.

There’s also LD 1133 — An Act to Amend the Transportation Laws, which includes supports converting state railways to recreational trails in Portland and Richmond. The bill is in workshop with the transportation committee Thursday.

Rail groups oppose those bills, said Anthony J. Donovan, director of the Main Rail Transit Coalition. He is working on expanding rail through Oxford County and Lewiston. His group focuses more on the western part of the state, while Maine Rail Group works more on the eastern side.

Donovan said the Maine Department of Transportation has balked at the idea to pay for passenger rail expansion but believes it is their responsibility. In 2012, the Legislature approved “An Act to Make Capital Rail improvements for Economic Development Purposes,” which helped fund the Downeaster’s expansion to Brunswick.

“It’s critical that we get to message to DOT, that not only it is their responsibility to do it, but they have the money to do it,” Donovan said of the transportation department.

Paul Merrill, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, said the state agency does not yet have an official position yet on Baldacci’s bill, “but we typically oppose bills that attempt to circumvent our Work Plan process.”

The sponsor of LD 227 and supporters are confident extending passenger rail beyond southern Maine will create myriad benefits.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity for the state of Maine,” Baldacci said. “We need to take advantage of the situation we’re in and advocate for this state to get connected.”

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