Bethel passenger rail supporters talk strategies
Fifty years to the week after passenger rail service ended in Bethel, people who want to see it return gathered at the Bethel Inn to discuss how to make that happen.
They predicted that European tourists, skiers, local retirees and businesspeople, as well as residents from all over western Maine would ride the rails on a Portland-to-Montreal route like the one which once ran through Bethel.
About 70 people turned out for last Thursday’s meeting, which was both a presentation and input session and was coordinated by the Maine Department of Transportation.
As plans progress for expanding passenger rail service north of Portland, MDOT is doing a feasibility study for also extending train routes to Lewiston-Auburn and perhaps to Montreal.
The study, which is looking at such topics as ridership potential, costs, options for possible station stops and needed rail upgrades, is expected to be completed in December.
If extending the service is deemed feasible, the work would progress to environmental analyses, permitting, design, securing funding (likely from the federal government), equipment procurement and construction.
Sue Moreau, director of multi-modal planning for MDOT, said the most serious attention is being given to extending the route from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn.
“It’s less of a serious look from Lewiston-Auburn to Montreal,” she said.
But, Moreau added, “This piece right here to Bethel is different. You’ve already done some work here, there’s a train station, there was service here. We have that to look at.”
The train station was built in the early 1990s, and ski train service operated for two years until it was discontinued because of meager ridership.
There was plenty of support and ideas Thursday for bringing back trains.
“European visitors love to travel,” said Chad McGrew of the River View Resort, “but they don’t so much like to rent cars. If they can fly into Portland or Boston and climb into mass transportation, and can get up to the Bethel area and catch the Mt. Explorer and get all over the area, we’re going to double or triple what we can do with European visitors, and that could be year round.”
Jan Stowell said retirees would support a train.
“I feel very strongly that with folks coming in with the ski area, a lot of people are now making this a destination community. As we age, we are not going to be able to drive. I’d be on that train so fast to get to Portland … we need it for transportation.”
Rich Allen, of the River Valley Chamber of Commerce in Rumford, said he believes that community would use nearby rail service.
“Any investment in infrastructure that’s 30 minutes away can’t hurt,” he said. He said a Rumford resident told him, “’If I can drive 30 minutes to Bethel and jump on a train to Boston, I’m all for it.”
Matt Hancock, owner of Mt. Abram Ski Resort, said that the St. Lawrence & Atlantic tracks pass near Mt. Abram’s parking lot. He described his vision for train service.
“I can just envision a train full of people from New York and Boston, and the European fliers. It’s an incredible corridor. Close your eyes and you get it immediately. Boston to Portland, and the second largest city in Maine, and by November maybe up through a resort casino in Oxford, through the destination for skiing in the state of Maine, with two great resorts served out of one community, and up to great cities and great towns beyond that. It seems like the numbers will be there. It’s a unique opportunity. How do we fast track this?”
Jay Duncan, of AECOM of Boston, the consultant doing the study for MDOT, said the key for success, and the timing for how quickly it might happen, “is how you pay for it. We’ll have a better sense at the end of the [study] process.”
Steve Wight of Newry wondered what might be happening up the tracks from Bethel.
“Are there similar efforts happening in New Hampshire and Vermont, and Quebec? Does Montreal know we’re coming?” he asked.
Moreau noted that a development minister from Quebec was at the meeting.
Making the case
Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, continued Wight‘s line of questioning.
“We have partners 25 miles to west in New Hampshire, in northern Vermont, and folks in Montreal. What does advocacy require? I would think that both federal governments would respond much more rigorously to advocacy in three states and a province than to just Bethel.”
“AECOM will identify who to talk to and what barriers are,” said Moreau. “If the numbers are there to look at Montreal, the next step would be to get partnerships together. We want you to come to the next meeting, when we start to get some information back. We want your reaction to where the stations would be, what the route would look like.”
But Tony Donovan, of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition (and also a member of the BACC Transportation Committee), suggested a more proactive stance.
“Don’t wait for this study,” he said. “Do something. Don’t wait for MDOT to come back. An advocacy group is a great idea. I suggest you get moving in that direction, and generate interest from the local level up.”
He said that approach had worked for a rail project along the Intermountain Division line, from Portland through Fryeburg.
Duncan said the Bethel area could help its cause by providing data to show there would be significant ridership on a train. “If you can show a lot of people come from outside and it’s a major draw, it helps build that case,” he said.
Information on the numbers of skiers visiting the area, where they come from, and how long they stay would also help, he said.
Letters of support and statements on what rail service would mean to local businesses would also be valuable, the transportation officials said.
Moreau said there are federal funding programs specific to rural areas. To be competitive for such funding, she said, “We need to show we have our act together, and we also have local support — and that equals funding.”
For example, she said, communities on the Downeaster line from Portland to Boston own the stations in their communities and pay for their operation.
On Monday, Zinchuk said the chamber’s Transportation Committee will meet Oct. 13.
“This group will determine what the next steps are in our rail advocacy,” she said.
Zinchuk also gathered names and e-mail addresses at the meeting, “and will utilize that for future communication and possibly advocacy purposes,” she said.