NORWAY — At the Center for Ecology-Based Economy on Monday, April 4, representatives from the Maine Rail Transit Coalition and Sierra Club Maine urged attendees to call on their legislators and the Maine Department of Transportation commissioner to help bring passenger rail to western Maine.
There were roughly 20 people in attendance in downtown Norway and Tony Donovan, who represented both organizations, said he received a grant from the Sierra Club to give presentations on passenger rail efforts throughout the state with Paul Weiss, also of the Sierra Club.
“There is a road right over there that no one is using [for passenger rail],” Donovan said as he motioned toward the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad tracks. “Our goal is Montreal. Let’s get to Montreal because we can do that.”
He noted Bethel built a train station – which houses the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce – and has been a hub of economic activity. The goal is to get passenger rail to Montreal by the way of western Maine, which is about a 250-mile trip from Norway to Montreal by rail.
“We don’t even have high-speed rail. … Not only are we behind, but we’re light years behind,” Weiss added. “Maine still has the routes, we just need to rebuild it.”
Donovan told the audience the coalition spent a lot of time in the Legislature last session and was able to get $400,000 in state money allocated for a service development plan at the Danville Junction for “the train that goes to Brunswick to make a left-hand turn to Lewiston.” Lewiston and Auburn agreed in the fall to contribute $50,000 each toward the study.
The plan includes an infrastructure survey, project financing and environmental impact and is under the purview of the Maine Department of Transportation. Thus far, according to Donovan and Weiss, no money has been spent on the study and they equated it to when Gov. Paul Lepage refused to release the Land for Maine’s Future funds last year.
“We’ve had a really difficult time in forcing the governor to do what the people of Maine said to do,” Weiss said.
Completing the study is the first step in bringing passenger rail service to western Maine, Donovan and Weiss say. They implored those in the audience to not only contact their legislators about getting the study underway, but to contact DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt asking where the Lewiston rail study is.
The duo talked about potential economic and environmental impacts of passenger rail.
“There’s a theory out there – it’s a fact – railroad corridors are called economic corridors,” Donovan said.
He added he couldn’t predict exactly how many jobs would be created through passenger rail expansion in Maine, but noted many industries would benefit from it. They include jobs building the rail and rail cars, realtors (such as Donovan) coming to town, increased shopping, rising house values creating hubs of economic activity. Additionally more job opportunities would be available to more people because they could commute by work by train.
Donovan said he spent an hour talking with Lepage about passenger rail and the governor told him to show him a return on investment.
“There is a return on investment. He may not want to hear it but there is clearly a return on investment and I don’t even have to use the word environment,” Donovan said. “This is about saving money and making money and doing it in an environmentally friendly way.”
Both noted there are critics who will argue that railroads aren’t economically sustainable. Weiss said there isn’t a railroad in the world that pays for itself, as they’re all subsidized like airports.
“A lot of other countries are spending a lot of money on this because they see it as the clean, green future,” he said.
Weiss showed photos from 1914 of the 70 mph trolley service that ran every half hour between Portland and Lewiston and was hydro-powered.
“This was 100 percent green transportation and it is faster than what we have today with the Maine Turnpike,” he said. “It just sort of makes you laugh that over 100 years ago, we had transportation that was faster, less polluting and more efficient than what we have today.”
Maine and the United States has gone toward what Weiss called the “asphalt transportation network.” And with that comes a myriad of problems, he said, including air, water and noise pollution, wetlands and habitat destruction, erosion and run off, wildlife movement, road kills and safety issues.
Donovan spoke of a $25 million transportation bond, which would include passenger rail, they’re trying to get on the state ballot in November.
“What can do you do to help the environment? Help us. Pick up the phone, call your legislator,” he said. “Say, ‘Vote on the rail bond, thank you,’ and hang up.”
Weiss also urged people to write letters to the editor, inform their friends and family of these efforts and/or join the Maine Rail Transit Coalition or Sierra Club Maine.
For more information, visit www.mainerailtransit.org/Maine_Rail_Transit_Coalition/Welcome.html and www.sierraclub.org/maine.
Environmental and safety impacts
rail vs. motor vehicle
- 40 percent of U.S. energy use and pollution is transportation
- Trains 3-4 times more efficient than tractor-trailer trucks
- Electric rail 10-12 times more efficient than trucks
- 35,000 people killed in cars annually
- Travel by train 6,800 times safer than car/truck travel
Statistics provided by Paul Weiss of Sierra Club Maine