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Funds, projects to be outlined in state rail plan meetings starting next week in South Portland

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Funds, projects to be outlined in state rail plan meetings starting next week in South Portland

The state's railroad system, and funding priorities for future projects, could soon have a comprehensive vision.

Whether that vision will be shared by various rail advocates remains to be seen.

Beginning Monday, Dec. 7, at the South Portland Community Center, the state Department of Transportation will present its preliminary analysis and recommendations for the Maine State Rail Plan, a document that will serve as a guide for the development and investment in passenger and freight rail over the next 10 years.

The plan has drawn interest from groups that support increased rail development, but whose goals could ultimately compete for limited state and federal funding.

Rail supporters in Lewiston-Auburn have called for the revitalization of the region's rail system, as have advocates hoping to re-establish the so-called Mountain Division Line along Route 302. Rail supporters in both regions include the Auburn City Council, which claims investment in freight and passenger systems will reinvigorate local economies hurt by mill closures.

Meanwhile, supporters of extension of Amtrak Downeaster service to Brunswick continue to tout the popularity and economic benefits of the passenger service. Brunswick and Freeport each have development projects tied to the Portland-Brunswick extension, while communities along the established Portland-Boston line are calling for an investment to allow higher speeds – an improvement that could make the service more competitive with automobiles.

The recently established Maine Rail Transit Coalition has lobbied for a commuter rail system that would service Portland, Lewiston and Augusta. Tony Donovan, a spokesperson for the group, said the state rail plan should include passenger service from the Maine State Pier to the Auburn airport, as well as from the Portland Transportation Center along the Mountain Division line. Donovan said his group also supports the continued funding for the Downeaster. 

Supporters of these projects, and a host of others, have appeared during four public workshops that were held this fall. They have also appeared on a comments page set up by MDOT to gather input on the rail plan. To date, over 70 comments have been posted on the site. 

The Dec. 7 meeting is the first of four follow-up sessions being held in South Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and Presque Isle. 

The state plan comes amid increased national interest in rail as a means of reducing traffic congestion, moving goods and boosting local economies. Earlier this year President Barack Obama made available $13 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to benefit rail projects, including high-speed rail.

The Downeaster has applied for those federal dollars in the hopes of using them for the Portland-Brunswick extension and to increase speeds along its existing route.

Nathan Moulton, of Maine DOT, said in a recent press release that the state rail plan is important to best evaluate the state's rail system and to establish funding priorities.

"Funding for rail, as for other transportation improvements, is limited," Moulton said. "As a result, it is critical to invest what funding we have wisely. Our goal is to invest in a way that shows the most benefit to the state economy and to the largest number of Maine residents."

The Dec. 7 meeting will be begin at 6 p.m. at the South Portland Community Center, 21 Nelson Road.

For the times and locations of the other meetings, or to review studies that will impact the Maine State Rail Plan, visit the MDOT's Web page at maine.gov/mdot/railplan/index.htm

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