The Portland Phoenix

Portland group rallies support for commuter rail to Lewiston-Auburn

The Swiss-made Stadler GTW Articulated Railcar is one of the types or railcars considered in the Lewiston-Auburn Passenger Rail Service Plan completed in 2019. (Courtesy Tony Donovan)

Portland residents 100 years ago could travel to most surrounding towns and on to Boston and Montreal by rail, and all over the city on electric streetcars.

And for nearly 20 years, from 1914-1933, the Portland-Lewiston Interurban rail shuttle connected the state’s two biggest cities.

When increasing highway competition made continued operation financially impossible, the Lewiston line was abandoned.

Now the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, founded in 2008 by Portland residents Tony Donovan and Paul Weiss, would like to bring back the Lewiston/Auburn connection. They are rallying public support, fighting against the inertia of car-dependence, and the aversion to the large, long-term investments that would be required.

“We can do this again 110 years later using existing infrastructure,” Weiss said at a Jan. 30 meetup of the coalition at AC Hotel in the Old Port.

Potential routes into Portland identified in the Lewiston-Auburn Passenger Rail Service Plan are the existing Downeaster line to The Portland Transportation Center, left, and the old St. Lawrence & Atlantic line around the city’s east end. (Courtesy Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority)

The state owns the 30-mile St. Lawrence & Atlantic rail corridor that connects Portland and Auburn. Establishing passenger service there, Weiss said, would be “a huge solution to the vexing problem of congestion.”

The group’s weekly gathering, called “Rails and Ales,” meets from 5:30-7 p.m. at the hotel pub on Thames Street, where a window looks directly at the terminus of the state-owned railroad corridor. Just east of that is the former Portland Co. complex, founded in 1845 to build steam locomotives for the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad.

In addition to alleviating congestion, Weiss said, a return of passenger rail is necessary for the state to achieve its carbon emissions reduction goals. Gov. Janet Mills has pledged that Maine will be carbon-neutral by 2045. 

“(Rail is) the most efficient form of transportation,” Weiss said. “It has the lowest pollution per mile, less than anything but sailboats.” With electric or hybrid-electric trains that can run on wind, solar or hydropower, trains are a clean alternative form of transportation, he said.

Others at the meetup suggested a rail line to Lewiston-Auburn would also be good for Portland’s downtown district, providing businesses access to workers who cannot afford the city’s high rents. It would also provide workers an affordable option to get in and out of the city without the expense of purchasing, maintaining, and parking a car. 

Momentum for the idea lurched forward on the state level with the completion last year of a $500,000 Lewiston-Auburn Passenger Rail Service Plan, commissioned by the Maine Department of Transportation and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority. The report included studies of potential ridership between the two regions, corridor analyses and options for operating plans.  

A spokesman for NNEPRA testified in 2015 in support of the bill that funded the study, saying the extension of passenger service to Lewiston-Auburn is one of the authority’s “critical objectives.” A thorough and detailed evaluation of the options was required, he said, “to make the transition from a concept into a sound and implementable plan and then the actual service itself.”

The bill to fund the study was sponsored by then-state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, and cosponsored by several Lewiston and Auburn legislators and by Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland. The city of Lewiston also contributed $50,000. 

Now Lewiston is taking the next steps and the coalition would like to see Portland follow suit. Among the backers is Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer, who said recently that the rail connection “should have been done years ago.” 

Shanna Cox, president and chief executive officer of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is convening a steering committee to explore the best approach to rail in Lewiston-Auburn, with its first meeting to be held in late February. 

The committee includes transportation experts from the regional planning commissions and members of the Androscoggin, Oxford and Coos County Passenger Rail Committee. They will oversee research efforts and make a formal recommendation to the Lewiston City Council, said Lincoln Jeffers, director of Economic and Community Development for Lewiston. 

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and City Manager Jon Jennings did not respond by press time to questions about whether they consider pursuing passenger rail service to Lewiston a priority. 

The MRTC was concerned that plans for a major development on the eastern waterfront, through which the federal rail corridor passes, would not accommodate a passenger rail terminal at Ocean Gateway.

But city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said that while it is not currently part of the plan, the three-party agreement between the property owners (city, state, and DOT) for the land does not preclude future passenger rail.

The study, completed by engineering firms VSB and WSP,  found that there is “latent demand” for a passenger rail service in the area, with 71-98 percent of people surveyed at different times saying they would use the service. It projected 600-800 daily trips by 2025 and up to 1,900 daily riders by 2040. 

“The presence of a good rail connection increases the perception among residents and workers that the two areas are a single region rather than as two distinct and separate urban areas,” the report states. “This concept creates an affinity between the two places and a higher level of trip-making between them, a portion of which would be carried by rail.”

The rail service plan reviewed options about routes for a rail shuttle to the Amtrak Downeaster using either the Pan Am line or the St. Lawrence & Atlantic in a first phase, and then laid out possible connections in Portland, either at the Portland Transportation Center or at Ocean Gateway.

Coming into Ocean Gateway (MRTC’s preferred option) would involve restoring a rail swing bridge and trestle across the mouth of Back Cove, built in 1848 when the St. Lawrence & Atlantic began service from Portland to Yarmouth.

The study proposed service running from 5 a.m.-10 p.m. with 30-minute service at peak periods, 14 or 15 daily round trips on weekdays, and eight or nine round trips on weekends and holidays. Tickets were projected to cost between $6 and $10. 

Estimated costs would include $189-$295 million for construction, depending partly on where the rail line enters Portland; $75-$95 million for rail cars, and annual operating costs of $15-$21 million, not including revenue from ridership. 

A 2011 feasibility study by the Maine Department of Transportation for a Portland to Lewiston-Auburn Intercity Passenger Rail, with continued passenger service to Montreal, predicted between 30,000 and 46,000 riders could use the service each year.

In 1904, the Portland Railroad system carried 13 million passengers and had revenues of $686,000, with a net profit of more than $86,000 and dividends of nearly $60,000 paid to stockholders, according to “Portland Railroad: Part I, historical development and operations,” by Osmond Cummings.

But ridership on a Portland-Lewiston line now would not likely pay for the full operating costs. The service would have to be subsidized with public funding. 

NNEPRA says funding for the project would have to come from several sources. Federal grant programs have been known to fund approximately 50-80 percent of transit investments like this one, its study found, and the remaining funding would need to be provided by local and state sources and possibly public-private partnerships.

In 2009, NNEPRA successfully applied for about $35 million in federal funds under the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act to refurbish the tracks between Portland and Brunswick. 

“Because we were ‘shovel ready’ in 2009 as a result of the detailed planning process that began long before the construction,” Martin Eisenstein of Auburn said in testimony on behalf of NNEPRA in 2015, “our application to the federal government for funds was granted, and we were the first train service in the nation to break ground on track work under the ARRA program.”  

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition received a grant in 2013 from the National Association of Realtors to look into possible funding models and reviewed how increased tax revenues from rising property values that might be generated along the rail corridor could be recouped to invest in the rail infrastructure. 

Weiss said that the large investment required is hard for people to grasp. Such an investment would take decades to pay off, but he said it is worth it because rail infrastructure lasts much longer than automobile infrastructure. 

“It is expensive to do but in the long term it pays off manyfold,” Weiss said. “Some bridges on I-295 get replaced every three to four years, while bridges on the railroad lines have been there for more than 100 years.” 

Portland legislator Chipman agrees. He said the state should “step up to the plate” and provide funding to expand passenger rail service, including between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn.

“Travel by way of roads is the most expensive travel that there is when you look at what it costs to maintain roads and bridges, continually having to fill potholes and put down more pavement,” Chipman said. “We spend millions and millions of dollars every year maintaining roads and bridges.”

Chipman, who chairs the Taxation Committee, said there are many ways to fund such a project.

“We have surplus revenues now at the state level,” he said. “The economy is doing well, and we have more money coming in than what we projected.”

While there are competing needs at the state level, he said he believes passenger rail is an important priority, to reduce carbon emissions and give people different options for travel. 

“It’s a public service,” Chipman said. “We should fund it publicly.”

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