January 5, 2014

The future of a 30-mile freight rail between Auburn and Portland is up for debate after the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board to discontinue freight service.

The end of freight service creates a commuter rail service opportunity, while others feel the corridor would be great for a paved recreational trail linking Portland to Yarmouth.

The petition was put forward after Railroad President Mario concluded that the railroad was losing money with only one customer, Burnham & Morrill Co., makers of B&M Baked Beans, using the rail in Portland.

“We need businesses and jobs in Maine. The highest and best use in this corridor is moving thousands of people,” said Tony Donovan, a Portland commercial real estate broker who leads the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.

The state owns rights to the tracks after they purchased them from the railroad for $6.8 million in 2006 and 2009.

Supporters of the recreational trail say the absence of fright service makes the corridor much safer and could potentially be a cycling commuter route to Portland. It will be easier to create commuter train service without the freight trains since there will be less scheduling conflicts and less people involved with the negotiations.

The trail could share the right of way with the commuter rail service, according to Mike Lydon, a consultant hired by the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System to help the towns plan for trails from a regional perspective.

“We wouldn’t want to preclude one or the other from happening,” he Lydon. “We know they can happen together.”

To include a paved recreational trail and a commuter rail in the corridor there must be a minimum 10½ -foot separation from the center of the tracks to a fence separating the trail.

There is not enough space for both along the corridor until Yarmouth.

The federal government is set to make a decision on the petition in March.

The commuter rail project is estimated to cost $138 million, which would include three new rail cars, replacing tracks and building new bridges across Back Cove and Royal River in Yarmouth, and building new station platforms.

The service would run from Auburn to India Street in Portland.

According to the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, funding for the project could come from a combination of private investors, state funding, and federal funding –$20 million from private investors, $30 million from a state transportation bond, and the rest from federal dollars.

There is debate over whether the project could receive federal dollars.

A report conducted by the Maine Department of Transportation in 2011 concluded that the commuter rail service would not attract enough users for it to be considered for federal funding.

The Maine Rail Transit Coalition countered with their own study saying the project would receive federal funding when considering the new federal regulations.

The Legislature has shown its support for the project by passing a resolution last session to direct the Department of Transportation to seek funding.