One of these afternoons, head down to the Grand Trunk building at the bottom of India Street and take a look at the plaque on the wall. It marks "milepost 0.0" on a passenger rail line that ran for more than 100 years between Portland and Montreal; it's a reminder of Portland's rich rail history.
Obviously that line is no longer in service. But a group of activists who represent energy, environmental, and economic interests hope to revive a piece of it in the near future — and perhaps spur further rail linkages, er, down the line. They point to the success of the Downeaster and its extension to Brunswick, the increasing costs of car-ownership and highway maintenance, and advances in modern train technology as reasons the project is a no-brainer.
Last week, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition (MRTC) received a $15,000 grant from the National Association of Realtors to study the feasibility and impact of restoring a 29-mile commuter rail corridor between Portland and Auburn. Owned by the state of Maine, the Saint Lawrence and Atlantic (SLR) line passes through Falmouth, Yarmouth (where passengers could connect with Amtrak Downeaster trains), and New Gloucester, and could take passengers close to the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport. Beyond that, there is the potential to connect to recreational areas in Oxford County (Bethel ski areas and the Oxford Casino) and onward to Montreal.
As Gary Higginbottom of the MRTC puts it, the grant allows the coalition, local community leaders and stakeholders, and government officials to ask, "What is the potential of this corridor?"
A key question is, of course, how to fund what MRTC founder Tony Donovan refers to "a robust regional rail system." Donovan, who is an urban planner and realtor, has suggested exploring a "value-capture" system, wherein tax revenues generated by business development and increased property values along the line would be funneled back into the rail infrastructure. This model, similar to tax-increment financing (TIF), is being used to expand Washington DC's transit system as well.
The MRTC envisions running 22 round trips along the route daily, using Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs), which are lighter and more efficient than conventional rail cars, but can run on existing train tracks.
Paul Weiss, of the MRTC and the Sierra Club, notes that "the people of Lewiston-Auburn have been crying for passenger rail" for years. This could "completely change your whole lifestyle," he says — in ways that bus transport cannot, by the way. Buses still get snarled in traffic. Buses add to wear and tear on the roads. Bus schedules are stymied by weather. And buses are far less comfortable than trains. Plus, as Donovan says bluntly, "there is zero economic value to bus stops."
Donovan is confident. "Thirty-six months," he says without hesitating when asked for a timeline. When could we expect to see this rail line up and running? "We'll do it in 36 months."