Only forty years have elapsed since the Maine Central Railroad ceased intercity passenger rail service from Portland to Boston, Lewiston, Bangor and points west. Railway corridors in Maine’s largest urban center were abandoned, first on Commercial Street in 1989 and then the Union Branch in 2009; one to make it safe for automobiles and the other to create an urban recreational trail.
Yet Mainer’s enthusiasm for passenger rail has not waned. Interest is at an all-time high, and people I talk to from Wells to Bethel, Freyberg to Rockland and yes, even in the eastern counties, not only value restored passenger rail service in Maine, but see the need for a reinvigorated passenger rail system throughout the state. The time has come for a paradigm shift in our transportation mentality, and passenger rail will be - must be - an essential component of transportation in the 21st century.
Too many people, with good intentions, are underestimating our ability to change transportation policy. Too many people are saying rail will take too long, cost too much and face so much opposition, that we should take other alternatives, even it means continuing pumping tax dollars into road paving for buses and giving up on our existing railway transportation corridors for trails. Just as Commercial Street made way for cars, and the Bayside was cut up for a trail, we now are being asked to consider taking the last of the rail corridors into Portland to be used for other than their intended and engineered purpose.
The fact is, we can have a modern commuter and passenger intercity rail system, and we can have it in as few as two years. The railway routes are established. State and private rail companies have or are in the process of upgrading the infrastructure. Funding is not only available, but a careful analysis will show that it is a lot less expensive than rebuilding our roads every ten years. No one questions rebuilding a 1/3 mile long bridge for $38 million dollars (Martins Point), but consider it impossible to pay $14 million for 20 miles of track to Freyberg. Building five miles of rail is a road to nowhere, but spending $18 million of local property tax dollars to rebuild a section of the River Road is OK.
Until now we've lacked both the political will at all levels of government and a coordinated effort to make passenger rail a reality. But after ten years of successful regular Amtrak service between Portland and Boston, the time for revitalized passenger service throughout Maine is upon us, and it's time to act. It is not a time to be distracted by recreational use of this critical asset.
While recreational trails and off-road motoring are important to some segments of the economy, they should not overshadow the importance of a restored Mountain Division and St. Lawrence & Atlantic railways bringing real, long-term economic stimulus and jobs to communities through which they serve. A passenger rail system attracts private development dollars. Rail offers a more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly option than buses, airlines or automobiles. It also provides a much needed transportation option to seniors, students, or all those who would rather avoid the general hassle of automobile travel. What we need is a passenger rail initiative that connects the small urban centers of rural Maine regions not currently served by Amtrak.
It's high time to invest in a robust passenger rail transportation network that we can all be proud of, a network that includes both the Amtrak Downeaster and restoration of the regional network of railway transportation corridors that so ably served our economic needs in the recent past and hold out the best promise for our immediate future. Please, the next time fill up your gas tank, consider what it would be like to be free of the burdens of your car. We urge you to consider the possibilities. In twenty years you'll look back and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you.
Anthony J. Donovan, President
Maine Rail Transit Coalition
"Build Trains not Lanes