AUBURN — The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to hit the brakes on funding a passenger rail study between Portland and Lewiston and Auburn.

They said they would not go along with a request to chip in the final $10,000 required to fund the final phase of a $200,000 feasibility analysis to figure out if passenger rail access for Auburn and Lewiston should proceed.

Lewiston approved a similar contribution to the project this year.

“This is a big black hole,” Councilor Leroy Walker said. Given the track record of the passenger rail push, it is best to “shut ’em off now,” he said.

“It seems like it’s turning into a money pit,” Council Belinda Gerry said. She was perplexed why the city got so little for a $50,000 contribution it made several years ago for an earlier study.

Mayor Jason Levesque said he will reach out to other communities along the route to see if they are willing to shoulder some of the costs.

The bottom line, he said, is that there is still, “a significant desire in this community to exhaust all options to see if this is feasible.”

Bringing back passenger service to the area will likely cost as much as $300 million, according to a 2018 study, and likely require an ongoing subsidy to operate. But backers said it would also spur economic activity, ease transportation between Maine’s two biggest metropolitan areas and help take more gas-powered vehicles off the road.

State Sen. Nate Libby, a Lewiston Democrat, said in a letter to Auburn officials last week that completing the final phase of the study “is critical to putting Maine in a competitive position to
receive federal funding to complete build-out and begin service,” a crucial move given the possibility of new federal infrastructure funding in the near future.

Libby, who is in his final year in the state Senate, called the money a, “modest investment that moves our communities closer to expanding passenger rail service via the existing rail lines of Western and Central Maine, so that the 100,000 residents of the Lewiston-Auburn metro area will soon be able to take advantage of greater, smarter, more cost-effective transportation options.”

Libby said the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills approved legislation in June that directed the Maine Department of Transportation to finish the study that would determine if Lewiston and Auburn can be tied into the passenger rail network that extends from Portland to Boston and beyond. The measure required Lewiston and Auburn to chip in 10% of the $200,000 price tag.

Libby said that once the localities are on board, the Maine DOT “is prepared to move expeditiously to retain a consultant and begin this work.”

The law requires the DOT’s study to make, “an economic evaluation of commuter and passenger rail service that builds upon data and potential next steps included in the Lewiston-Auburn Passenger Rail Service Plan finished in May 2019.

It is supposed to incorporate two options from that plan for further review to look at both the Pan Am Railroad corridor already in use for freight trains and the state-owned St. Lawrence and Atlantic corridor between Auburn and Yarmouth junction, a stretch of track that is not in use and has been eyed for a new rail trail.

The statute calls on the department to “conduct a high-level alternatives analysis for both rail corridors” to recommend a preferred route as well as comparing the idea with other transportation connections between Portland and the Twin Cities.

The last passenger rail service to Lewiston ended in 1967 when the Grand Trunk Railway that operated throughout New England and the eastern provinces of Canada gave up its last link between Portland and Montreal.

The legislation requires the DOT to report its findings to the Legislature by March 1, 2022, Libby said.


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