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Updated: Center Street train station a front-runner among Portland North transit proposals

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Updated: Center Street train station a front-runner among Portland North transit proposals

PORTLAND — State transportation planners have narrowed the number of proposals that could establish commuter rail or rapid bus service from Portland to points north, including Brunswick and Bath.

According to a Maine Department of Transportation spokeswoman, the front-runners of the Portland North Project include plans to add a train station at the south end of Center Street in Portland, near the Marine Trade Center.

In addition, planners at a public meeting in Brunswick on Tuesday said a portion of the town's Maine Street Station project could function as a transit hub, either for commuter rail or rapid bus service.

Planners said either service would likely be separate from the Amtrak Downeaster, which is slated to extend its Boston-Portland service to Freeport and Brunswick by 2012.

The Portland North Project will select either a bus or rail proposal – not both – for consideration for planning and engineering funding made available in the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program. The project's goal is to remove 1,000 vehicles from Maine's highways. 

DOT has been reviewing the project for about two years. It plans to settle on a final recommendation this summer before formally applying for Small Starts funding.

The DOT had considered six options, two involving bus service and four with rail. However, spokeswoman Sue Moreau on Monday said some of the remaining plans were scrapped because of logistics and expense. 

Among the nixed proposals was a rail corridor that would've used the existing St. Lawrence line, which runs along Interstate 295. The line had been favored by DOT because it was deemed the best fit for establishing commuter service with Falmouth, Yarmouth, Freeport and Brunswick.

The plan would have also provided direct access to Portland's Ocean Gateway terminal with a station on India Street, or the city's growing Bayside neighborhood with a station on Marginal Way.

But the cost estimate for the St. Lawrence line was $121 million, leading planners to consider using the Pan Am line. That line wraps around the west edge of the Portland peninsula before terminating just west of the Casco Bay Bridge. 

That plan, projected at about $60 million for Portland-to-Brunswick service, would also require building tracks along Commercial Street. Moreau said that trains would run alongside vehicular traffic.

The Pan Am plan also has an option that would have revived the city's Union Station on St. John Street. However, Moreau said Union Station was trumped by the merits of Center Street because it would be a short walk to Old Port businesses and the Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal. 

The Center Street plan could also coincide with renewed efforts to loosen restrictions in the city's Waterfront Central Zone. The rules were created in 1993 to protect the city's working waterfront by restricting non-marine uses like condominiums. However, 11 commercial property owners in the zone have recently applied to ease the prohibitions amid a decline in the local fishing industry.

In addition, the city owns the parking lot right next to the Marine Trade Center.

"The city has a lot of development plans for that area," Moreau said. "And it's really not that far of a walk to Ocean Gateway, Casco Bay Lines or downtown."

Planners have emphasized the need for a downtown station because the Portland Transportation Center on Sewall Street, the station used by the Downeaster and Concord Coach bus service, is well outside the city's hub of businesses and attractions.

Amtrak already plans to extend its service to Brunswick via the Pan Am line, thanks to a recent $35 million federal grant for track rehabilitation. Officials have previously advocated for a downtown station, saying it would increase ridership and connectivity.

Despite the momentum for the Downeaster project, Moreau said the extension and Portland North are two "entirely separate" projects, even though commuter service, the Downeaster and existing freight service could conceivably all use the same rail line, and thus, benefit from upgrade funding.

Moreau did not rule out the Downeaster as a potential commuter option, but said other possibilities include shorter two-car trains modeled after diesel-powered Budd Cars. 

"We're not leaning in any particular direction," Moreau said, adding that DOT is receiving guidance from the FTA's Region 1 office in Boston.

Nonetheless, commuter stops highlighted during DOT's Portland North workshop last week appear to emphasize coastal communities. The drift to the coast has angered transportation advocates in the Lewiston-Auburn area, but DOT insists that ridership projections are higher on the coast. 

Moreau also refuted claims that rapid bus service is being considered more favorably because it could be established more quickly, and cheaply, than commuter rail.

The cost of establishing rapid bus service to Brunswick with stops along the way is projected at $12.2 million, nearly five times less than the Center Street train proposal.

The bus service would be similar to the type Concord runs between Portland and Boston, but without a central hub like South Station.

The majority of Small Starts grants awarded nationally have gone to rapid bus service projects, largely because they tend to be cheaper.

However, consultants at Tuesday's meeting in Brunswick said the Obama Administration's emphasis on rail was forcing the FTA to review other factors that might make rail projects more attractive, including the economic development spurred by commuter stations and boosts in ridership to stations that double as tourist destinations, like Freeport and Portland.

Moreau said logistics and cost forced DOT to scrap plans to create a dedicated bus lane on either Interstate 295 or Interstate 95. Instead, the service would either run along the shoulder or mix with existing traffic.

Shoulder-running bus service has sparked safety concerns. But planners said Tuesday that the method was used successfully, and safely, in cities like Minneapolis and Ottawa. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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