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State rail plan could include new Portland station

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State rail plan could include new Portland station

SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents and alternative transportation advocates Monday received a sneak peek at a state plan outlining rail projects and funding priorities for the next 10 years.

Some projects proposed in a draft of the Maine State Rail Plan were expected, specifically a $39 million extension of the Amtrak Downeaster to Brunswick and a $53 million plan to make the Downeaster's existing service between Portland and Boston faster. Both projects were the focus of recent applications for rail-specific grants made available through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

But at least two proposals during the Maine Department of Transportation's presentation at the South Portland Community Center caught people some by surprise.

One is an MDOT recommendation to review alternative terminal or platform locations in Portland.

Nathan Moulton, the DOT project manager for the rail plan, said Monday that although the Portland Transportation Center on Thompson's Point works well for the Downeaster, plans to bring commuter service into Portland from northern communities would require a downtown location to make such a service viable. 

Moulton said an in-town platform would be more attractive to workers, as well as bikers and pedestrians. Moulton wouldn't say if the state had specific locations in mind.

"There's been a lot of talk (about potential sites)," he said. "We'd work closely with the city because we obviously want to make sure it will work for them in a place where there's parking and it won't cause more traffic congestion. I don't want to say specific locations or make recommendations because we really want to discuss that with the city."

During Monday's meeting, Portland Public Works Director Michael Bobinsky urged state rail planners to involve the city, particularly if a proposed station impacts an ongoing joint project with DOT to revamp Franklin Arterial. The committee overseeing the project is currently reviewing three concepts for the corridor and is slated to begin feasibility studies in January. 

Bobinsky said Monday that he hoped state rail planners would discuss the train platform soon, before any "hard engineering" takes place on the Franklin Arterial project.

Although Moulton didn't specifically identify that area as a potential site, the state owns an easement between Interstate 295 and Marginal Way, as well as a parcel behind the Miss Portland Dinner.

The city gave the properties to the state in 2005 as part of the deal to develop the Bayside neighborhood. At the time, the state proposed creating a rail corridor along the easement and a train platform in the lot that currently provides parking for the Miss Portland Dinner. 

Bobinsky's comments, as well as those made Monday by Tony Donovan, a spokesman for the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, seem to indicate that DOT is again considering that area for rail development.

However, according to Donovan, a platform in Bayside or the Commercial Street extension hasn't been endorsed by city leaders. 

"I've talked to city councilors and others in Portland have been studying this issue," he said. "None of them have mentioned this. So if this isn't coming from Portland, where's it coming from?"

In an e-mail to members of the Maine rail Transit Coalition, Donovan said a platform in Bayside would be "inferior" to a transit center at the Maine State Pier. 

An alternative platform was just one of the issues that surfaced Monday. Another, the $28 million restoration of the Mountain Division Line that runs along Route 302 between Portland and Fryeburg, drew concerned abutters in Westbrook and Windham who worried about land seizures and declining property values.

The plan's goal is to prioritize which of the state's passenger and freight corridors should be restored and how to use rail to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing regional connectivity and local economic development.

Moulton cited Brunswick's $23.5 million Maine Street Station development as an example of the latter. The project, as well as Freeport's Village Station, both have rail components that developers hope will lure visitors to newly constructed shops and restaurants.

However, the proposed Brunswick rail extension, and most of the projects outlined in the rail plan, depend on one-time federal subsidies.

The Downeaster, which has had some success, has no long-term funding mechanism. The federal government pays $6 million of the service's $13.5 million budget, while the state chips in another $1.5 million.

This year the state declined to renew its allocation because of holes in the transportation budget. Meanwhile, the service's federal subsidy is currently guaranteed only through the middle of December.

Such challenges are a microcosm of the state's larger rail picture, which features a lot of ideas, but little money to bring them to fruition.

According to Moulton, $100 billion worth of projects initially applied for $8 billion in available stimulus grants. Although many of those applications have been withdrawn, projects in the state's rail plan will be competing with the rest of the nation. 

The plan, which is scheduled to be completed early next year, is mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For the times and locations of the other presentations, 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

This story has been clarified to explain the Amtrak Downeaster's budget and the national applications competing for federal funding.