Freight rail in Maine. With the Amtrak’s extension to Brunswick freight rail will also benefit. Other tracks extending to Lewiston/Auburn, and up to Montreal, could be refurbished and open up for freight and passengers. Photo: Ramona du Houx
Exclusive Interview with Governor John Baldacci by Ramona du Houx
As a congressman, John Baldacci fought for Amtrak to come to Maine and has always been a promoter of freight and passenger rail. In 2001 the Downeaster began services to Portland. Now, the Downeaster will move up the coast to Brunswick.
“I’m very excited about it. It’s something people in Maine know makes sense. It’s something we never should have done away with. We now have an opportunity to reactivate passenger and freight rail,” said Governor John Baldacci. “This is the first big step, to go on up to Brunswick, then over to Lewiston/Auburn and on up to Montreal. There are many businesses that are looking to use Maine as a base to do business up in Montreal; being able to offer them the freight rail connection, as a part of doing business in Maine, would be another feather in our hat. The next approach is to go to the Maine Central line through Augusta and then up to Waterville.”
Ridership on the Downeaster increased by 32 percent between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, amounting to 345,000 passenger trips. According to Patricia Quinn, executive director for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, that number will increase by eight percent this year.
“The number of people riding the Downeaster has increased. It’s so popular they are looking to add another two cars,” said Baldacci. “And they are telling me that my freight rail increases are going against the national norms. Fright rail business is definitely up in Maine.”
According to a study commissioned by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Downeaster passenger train will generate billions of dollars in economic benefits in Maine over the coming decades. The study, Amtrak Downeaster: Overview of Projected Economic Impacts, identifies long-term economic benefits in Maine and New Hampshire associated with development along the train’s Portland-to-Boston corridor. It also examined potential economic impacts of expanded service to Brunswick and Rockland.
“As train routes grow, more business and retail centers will spring up around the stations, the economic ripple effect for the communities will be great. Last spring I was at the ground breaking for the Freeport Village Station project. It’s already happening,” said the governor.
The Bath station was back in service again in May, after having been closed to passenger service since 1959. Brunswick is planning to break ground this spring for a new $23 million Maine Street Station. Maine Eastern Railroad began operating passenger excursion service in 2004 as the result of a request by Baldacci to run a special Lobster Festival Train into Rockland.
“The Downeaster is a great opportunity for economic development,” said Baldacci.
Since the Downeaster has been coming to Portland, new development projects have sprung up. The Island Point mixed-use development in Saco is being built next to the railroad line; in Old Orchard Beach a $20 million condominium complex and more than 800 new residential housing units have been built within two blocks of the Downeaster platform.
A Center for Neighborhood Technology report said development projects along the Downeaster corridor will create more than 8,000 new jobs in Maine between 2001 and 2030. The report went on to say that extending train service to Brunswick would create an additional 2,582 jobs.
An estimated $2.5 million per year from the state’s car rental tax will be used to pay back a STAR federal loan of $31.5 million, which represents the cost it will take to refurbish the 28 miles of Pan Am Railways-owned track between Portland and Brunswick.
“We have a ways to go before we get high-speed rail like they have in Europe or Japan. We have the Acela train, from Boston to New York to Washington, but our tracks have been built alongside of riverbanks with bends and curves. If you built them new they would be straighter to accommodate the high speeds we can now achieve. We can’t have those trains on our old tracks,” said Baldacci. “The exciting thing is having trains return to Maine, it’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Once the tracks are refurbished, as a result of the legislation that pays for the work on the lines to Brunswick, freight will be able to use them as well.
“Just look at the opportunity Maine has, if we sit down with manufacturers and tell them about the freight options they could have. We sat down with Poland Spring. They saw it as a wonderful opportunity for them to reduce their trucking fuel cost by using rail instead. The same opportunity exists for McCain’s in Aroostook County or other manufacturers in the state,” said the governor. “If a manufacturer has a rail spur to a Maine railroad line that will take them to a cargo port in Portland, Searsport, or a facility in Auburn, which will connect them with the western part of the country or up into Canada, they can see that freight rail can give them a competitive economic advantage.”
With the price of diesel making some companies lose their profits to the oil companies, shipping their products by rail is the answer.
“Transportation is a huge cost driver,” said the governor. “If a company decides to set up shop in Maine, they have to ask: What will we do about transportation and energy costs? The Downeaster is the transportation solution for increased economic development.”
With gasoline prices expected to hit four dollars a gallon by the end of summer, commuting by train is an option many people will embrace. The Downeaster line to Brunswick is projected to be running by 2010.
“Gasoline is not coming down any time soon. The more we can do without it the better,” said Baldacci. “Rail is a long-term solution. It’s better for our economy, makes the state more inviting for tourists, helps commuters and businesses, saves our roads from wear and tear, and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”