Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rails - Not Trails

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition is an assembly of individuals and interest groups whose goal is to increase Transit Options and Mobility by mobilizing citizens to press for sensible public policy to define and implement the appropriate role of commuter rail in Maine
My name is Anthony Donovan. I am a planner, transportation specialist, certified economic developer with a Masters Degree in Public Policy and certificate of Urban Planning from the University Of Maine Muskie School Of Public Service. I currently practice my profession as a commercial Realtor © specializing in site location of development on railways – specifically focused on Transit Oriented Development land use. The Maine Rail Transit Coalition exists primarily due to my dogged pursuit of good rail planning for Maine.

We are faced with a serious dilemma regarding the future of transportation in this country and a decision needs to be made immediately in Maine. Over the past 20 plus years, the State of Maine has invested a substantial amount of taxpayer money into the acquisition and restoration of state railway corridors. The opportunity presented by this investment for moving goods and people in an economical and environmentally friendly manner is significant.
However, while Maine Transportation officials plan on the one hand consider investments in making rail an effective transportation method, on the other hand (often another department) the state is spending more tax dollars on conversion of these same rail corridors into recreational trails. There is no data available on the impact of these decisions, and in fact there were no true analytical reports on the economic or environmental impacts of trails vs. rails done prior to construction of these trails.

A Transformation in Transportation
Over the past 18 months our coalition has been active in educating people, institutions and towns on the potential for use of railway corridors, for rail, in Maine and throughout the northeast. We have a vision for rail transportation that, based on existing corridors, can save money for households, municipalities and the state, while at the same time bringing substantial economic activity to the state, while reducing the impacts of transportation on the environment.
We offer a model for railway corridor transportation that could be applied to regions around the country and for example we offer the following concept for investing in commuter passenger rail service for the Portland region and its suburbs. There are 3 railroad corridors that we will reference. All serve Portland; one from the south, one from the north and one from the west.
The southern route is the PanAm Mainline, owned by Guilford Transportation, a privately held company managed in most part by its president David Fink. The mainline currently is used by PanAm for freight operations and is leased to the Maine rail authority (NNEPRA) for operation of Amtrak passenger service between Boston, MA and Portland, Me with plans to extend service to Brunswick. To use a highway analogy, the mainline could be called the “Interstate Highway” as it is a major arterial serving interstate transportation needs for Maine, NH and Massachusetts.

The northern route, the St. Lawrence & Atlantic railway (SLR) is owned by the State of Maine. Operations on this line are under contract to the state. The corridor intersects with the PanAm Mainline in Yarmouth, Maine and traverses the state from Portland, at the Maine State Pier to NH on a route to Montreal Canada. Towns in Maine served by the SLR include Bethel, Auburn, aforementioned Yarmouth, Falmouth and the City of Portland. The distance between Portland and Yarmouth junction with the PanAm Mainline is approximately 14 miles. Amtrak passenger rail service is expected to pass through this junction within 24 months.

The western corridor, the Mountain Division, is also owned by the State of Maine, with the exception of 4-5 miles owned by PanAm from the Portland Transportation Center, where the Amtrak service operates from, west to the Sappi paper firm in Westbrook. There are currently no operators beyond Westbrook. However, the State DOT has recently completed a study on the restoration of railway service on this line and has budgeted over $35 million dollars in the next round of the state Bi-annual Transportation Improvement Plan (BTIP) for this work. A grant has also been submitted to the federal transit administration (FTA) for funding through the American Economic Recovery Act. This route also goes to Canada, though NH and VT to St. Johnsbury. Towns in Maine served by this corridor include the City of Portland and its suburbs of Westbrook, Windham, Gorham and Standish. It intersects with the PanAm Mainline at the Portland Transportation Center.

Based on knowledge of passenger railway services in other parts of the country and the historical use of rail corridors, it is our belief that the SLR and Mt. Division have the potential to provide regular commuter service to and from the city of Portland. These corridors are capable of operating a double-track system, served by a train composed of a single or multiple DMU railway cars. This type of operation has the capability of moving more than 100 passengers at a time, at speeds of over 100 MPH, although realistically we recognize that 60 mph is adequate. We believe this service can significantly reduce the number of cars commuting daily in and out of Portland. There are estimates that from the north alone, 35,000 cars enter the city every morning.

A real need for real-time data
There is little data to support this investment in alternative transportation in Maine. Too often the Dot’s reject this concept out-of-hand due to demographic standards for railway investments used by the FTA. And, in our automobile-centric society the concept of rail service to replace autos is hard to grasp. Yet, no data has been used to determine if the railway corridors currently being converted to recreational use are in the best interest of the public taxpayers.
We would suggest otherwise and we are calling for a full determination by the State of Maine into how these decisions are being made. We are requesting a determination of what the economic and environmental impacts are on the uses, and if in fact state law allows these railway transportation corridors to be changed to trails. We need data collection and analysis on all aspects of the uses of these corridors. And we are asking that the state policy for expenditures on the acquisition of railway corridors clearly define the intended uses of these corridors.

What is the Law?
The State Railway Preservation Act[1] does not reference conversion of the rail corridors to any use other than rail, other than to state that “…the MDOT reserves the right to terminate at any time the use of the Calais Branch rail corridor for recreational purposes and to use the Calais branch rail corridor for railroad purposes”. [2]
At the Federal level, the law allowing the use of railway corridors for trail use specifically references that the use of trails are a mechanism for preserving railroad rights-of-way for future rail service. The law allows inactive railroad corridors to be used by qualified trail mangers on an interim basis “…until such time as these rights-of-way are needed for future rail service…”[3]

This week the MDOT is hosting a “celebration” of the paving of over five miles of the Mt. Division Trail at a cost to taxpayers of over one million dollars. That celebration is followed by a public presentation by a trails group of their plans for conversion of the entire length of the corridor to a paved bike and recreational trail. Railway corridors serving Augusta, Bath and Bangor to name a few have already been converted to paved recreational routes. Plans for the Auburn corridor are in the works. Portland is currently building a six million dollar paved trail on the only surviving corridor that served the center of the city.

At the same time the state is engaged in a rail plan. The Governor has submitted a new transportation plan for ports and rail, one of the largest rail way companies in Maine is fighting for survival business and the state has submitted grant applications to the federal government for almost $150 million in railway improvements.

· What is the law and what is the policy?
· What is best investment of public funds for the most number of people? and
· What is the best use of tax dollars for transportation?

We are faced with a serious dilemma regarding the future of transportation in this country and a decision needs to be made immediately in Maine.

[1] Maine Revised Statute Title 23 Chapter 615
[2] Although the Calais Branch has been turned over to trail use, and the rail, rails and ballast have all been removed, we assume this branch will never be restored due to the economics of the conversion. But, our findings are that the Mt. Division trail and other trails on state –owned railway corridors are being built in a similar fashion that will prevent the return of rail at any time, or it will be prohibitively expensive.
[3] THE NATIONAL TRAILS SYSTEM ACT (P.L. 90-543)(16 U.S.C. 1241 et. seq.) as amended through P.L. 103-145, November 17, 1993

Comments to the State Rail Plan Sept. 29, 2009

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition is an assembly of individuals and interest groups whose goal is to increase transit options and mobility by mobilizing citizens to press for sensible public policy to define and implement the appropriate role of commuter rail throughout the Northeast.

My name is Anthony Donovan. I am a planner, transportation specialist, certified economic developer with a Masters Degree in Public Policy and certificate of Urban Planning from the University Of Maine Muskie School Of Public Service. I currently practice my profession as a commercial Realtor © specializing in site location of development on railways – specifically focused on Transit Oriented Development land use. The Maine Rail Transit Coalition exists primarily due to my dogged pursuit of good rail planning for Maine.
· In 2008 I partnered with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club to sponsor forums around the state to educate and inform residents and policy-makers on railway transportation corridors.
· During the last State legislative session I led the successful effort to pass a bill, LD 2019 that created a mechanism for funding capital and operating investment in rail.
· I have been involved in PACTS, advocating for rail over the best part of the last decade, I have attended years of meetings on the Portland North studies, the Brunswick extension, the State rail Plan, the Mt. Division and the Calais branch. I have contacts throughout the State who are advocates for railway corridor restoration.
· I represented the Maine Street Station Transit Oriented Development in Brunswick, and consulted with property owners of railway sites in NH, NY and Florida, and of course in other Maine locations.
· I currently represent the owner of Thompson’s Point, the 30-acres adjacent to the Portland Transportation Center. My firm has developed a proposal to redevelop this site for mixed used, transit-oriented development, leveraging local state and federal resources with private development interests. And, yes I may personally benefit from this site becoming a Transit Oriented Development. However, the concept is based on a the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority study projecting billions of dollars in benefits from proper development of station sites along the Downeaster railway corridor (Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2008).

Together with more than 20 years of involvement in the study of Maine’s railways, and from the rail forums we conducted over the past year, it is my professional opinion that;
1.) The Maine State Rail Plan must determine commuter rail markets radiating out along all of the existing rail corridors.
2.) There is a need to educate the populace on the locations, routes, sites along the routes and the cost & benefits of railway corridors.
3.) Once people learn about the resources a railway transportation corridor has to offer – right in our own backyards – they are very interested in how we might use these resources better.

The State Rail Plan needs to lead to better policy procedures in regards to decisions impacting the long-term viability of railway corridors including:
a) Rails with Trails, how they are engineered, and whether the economic benefit of recreational use of these corridors is in the best interest of the public.
Specific to Portland, there are railway transportation corridors that serve southern Maine and the Portland metro region which are owned in most part by the State of Maine. The Downeaster operates on the PanAm –owned Mainline, which can be compared to the Interstate Highway system. This major arterial can be fed by local railway “arterials”; the Mountain Division, the SLR, the Rockland Branch, the Augusta Lower Roads and connections to Lewiston/Auburn and Pineland. These corridors provide an opportunity to transform how we live, how we travel, how we create jobs, how we do land-use, and our methods of addressing congestion and environmental protection.

This rail plan should recognize that the Mountain Division and St. Lawrence & Atlantic railway corridors must first of all be preserved against obstacles that prevent the corridors from being used to their highest and best potential.
- We need a state policy on Rails with Trails and cost-benefit analysis of their impacts on rail.

- Roadway reconstruction projects that impact railway corridors must analyze the long-term impact of those decisions on freight and passenger use of the railway corridors.

- State, local and county plans for land-uses of railway sites should carefully consider the potential economic impacts.

Our coalition wants the State of Maine Rail Plan to address rail as a method of getting us where we need to go. We believe that the potential exists for using the Mt. Division Railway Corridor at least as far as Standish for commuter rail. We also believe that the SLR railway corridor could be used for commuter rail service to at least Yarmouth, and possibly serving Auburn and Augusta.

· A regional planning effort should be conducted as soon as possible (NOW) to provide a realistic assessment of the benefits, costs and potential of these railway corridors.
· A public visioning should take place, including a program of educating residents, policy-makers and property owners on these railway resources.
· We are advocating for a determination of ridership, commuter and land use patterns in areas currently adjacent to these railway corridors.
· We are advocating for an analysis of the various revenue sources for funding rail transit that are currently used around the country and the impacts of funding for rail operations and capital improvements through a tax on the consumption of gasoline and through a collection of tolls on the Maine Turnpike.

“Think of this as simply changing your perspective, accepting that the world is not precisely as you imagine. Historically every major breakthrough began with a simple idea that threatened to overturn all our beliefs. The simplest statement “the earth is round”, was mocked as utterly impossible because most people believed the oceans would flow off the planet. Small minds have always lashed out at what they don’t understand. There are those who create … and those who tear down. That dynamic has existed for all time. But eventually the creators find believers, and the numbers of believers reaches a critical mass, and suddenly the world becomes round… Perception is transformed, and a new reality is born.” (Brown, 2009)

Observations for the Maine Rail Plan Technical Advisory Commitee

Submitted by: The Maine Rail Transit Coalition

· Portland - Maine's largest city has approved a transit plan for its downtown area and financial district—a plan and strategy that can have a substantial bearing on public transportation, including commuter rail passenger service, throughout the Greater Portland region—and a plan that wants to substantially limit the impact of automobiles on downtown human livability.
· Without non-automobile commuter transit to Portland, the visions of the Portland Peninsula Transit Study, the Franklin Street reconstruction and other human-scale planning efforts may falter or fail completely.
· Six existing transportation rail corridors radiate out from Portland, South Portland and Westbrook—corridors primarily owned by the State of Maine. Used properly, these corridors can create more efficient, pleasant, economical, environmentally sound and humanly civil transportation to and from major nodes of activity in Portland and surrounding towns.
· The Maine Legislature established the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and gives the authority the rights and responsibilities to "...take all actions that are reasonably necessary to initiate, establish or reinitiate regularly scheduled passenger rail service between points within this State and points within and outside this State", and it "is a body both corporate and politic in the State established for the general purpose of promoting passenger rail service.
· The Rail Authority appears to view commuter rail service along the Portland to Standish segment of the Mountain Division line - and perhaps along other rail lines radiating out from Portland into the suburbs – as having insufficient ridership markets to warrant attention by the Maine State Rail Plan process. The Rail Authority and MDOT appear to have no market-analysis statistics to justify such a view. Rather than as synergistic, the Authority considers other rail corridors as competitive.
· Perceptions of markets for commuter rail service may be based on the original Mt. Division study completed in 2007 that focused on commuters from the western Sebago watershed area. This is dated and geographically limited data, and does not reflect the massive urban sprawl that has occurred over the last 10 years in an arc from Buxton and Gorham to Standish, Windham and Raymond.
· With 8,000 to 10,000 cars daily on the River Road, and equal volumes on at least five other major roads (routes 302, 25, 114, 202 and 22) towards Portland, there seems to be more than adequate volume to warrant commuter passenger rail serving the Portland suburbs to the west. In addition, the commuters from Portland’s northern suburbs may be an additional 30,000 per day.
· It is reasonable to expect that the $28 million TIGER Stimulus grant application for upgrade of the Mountain Division rail line will be funded. This would provide the basis for restoration of this rail corridor, giving us the basis for constructing that rail link to standards for commuter rail service from Portland to Westbrook, Windham and possibly the Sebago lake area. This creates commuter rail access for a market that could be in the tens of thousands of daily commuters.
· There are many advantages to the Mountain Division as a commuter rail line. The corridor is “shovel-ready” for service offering environmental advantages, congestion mitigation, economic development, and an opportunity to showcase alternative transportation for Maine residents. Commuter rail offers the opportunity to move thousands of cars off the roads before they arrive in Portland. In addition, the Mountain Division upgrade grant application references a connection to Amtrak service in Portland as part of a state plan to link Maine rail to national destinations.
· To be fully functional, a commuter rail system must be connected to key employment and destination nodes such as downtown Portland, Maine Medical Center, Unum, Fairchild, IDEXX, National Semiconductor and the Maine Mall. Further bus and fixed Guideway transit connections would make these connections.
· If the state could purchase the former right of way of the old Portland to Rochester Railroad, the rail connection from downtown Gorham could extend to Buxton and beyond to Sanford. It is not too late for this to happen; this rail right-of-way is still mostly clear.
· In addition to the Mountain Division rail line, the State of Maine also owns the St. Lawrence & Atlantic railway corridor (SLR) offering further potential to serve the communities northeast of Portland in conjunction with expanded rail passenger and commuter service to Brunswick.
· To adequately assess the biggest passenger rail market in Maine, the Maine State Rail Plan must determine Portland metro commuter rail markets radiating out along all of the existing rail corridors from Portland, South Portland and Westbrook. From that data the Rail Plan must create an informed commuter transit vision.
· The City and citizens of Portland should reasonably expect Maine’s only passenger rail authority—the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority—to work in a manner that is consistent with such a constructive commuter rail vision and to provide an objective market analysis of commuter rail transit within the Greater Portland region.
· The Federal government in Washington recognizes that aggressive rail restoration is necessary to move people out of cars, reduce carbon emissions, reduce oil consumption, reduce highway congestion and make our cities more livable. By passing the Portland Peninsula Transit Study, the City Council of Maine’s largest city has recognized the need to accomplish these objectives. Therefore, MDOT’s rail plan and Greater Portland’s regional transportation strategy must move in this same direction. If the US Government is finally moving on rail, MDOT’s plan cannot cause Greater Portland to be left behind.
· If we snooze, we lose.