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

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