Friday, September 14, 2012

Trains, streetcars regain momentum as travel options

Portland Daily Sun


Trains, streetcars regain momentum as travel options

"We've got the train!"
Those words from Wayne Davis, chairman of Train Riders/Northeast, an advocacy group for Amtrak service in Maine, followed Wednesday's announcement by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority that the Amtrak Downeaster will start traveling north from Portland to Freeport and Brunswick on Nov. 1.9-13-train-ride-1
"A big sigh of relief," Davis said Wednesday, describing his reaction as he organized meal orders and other details of TrainRiders/Northeast's 24th anniversary dinner, taking place Thursday at 5 p.m. at The Harraseeket Inn in Freeport.
"It's great for our 24th anniversary," Davis said of the news of the expansion of service.
For seven years, TrainRiders/Northeast has worked to get the extension of passenger rail service from Portland to Brunswick, Davis noted. Next year, when TrainRiders/Northeast celebrates a quarter century of advocacy, passengers of the Downeaster train should be used to the idea of traveling north from Portland to Brunswick, with stops in Freeport.
For now, it's uncharted territory.
The proposed schedule calls for morning and afternoon departures from Brunswick; if a person wanted to ride the train out of Brunswick at 7:05 a.m., they could arrive in Boston at 10:30 a.m. From Portland to Freeport, a passenger could leave at 12:35 p.m. and return from Freeport at 6:05 p.m.
"The most avid shopper would like that schedule," Davis noted.
Proponents of alternative transportation lauded Wednesday's news.
"It makes Portland much more attractive," said Richard Arena, president of the Association for Public Transportation Inc., a Boston-based group that supports high-speed rail, regional rail and commuter rail.
As Amtrak expands service, the region is seemingly gravitating to forms of transportation that years earlier were relegated to museums.
The reason isn't a mystery. "The roads are congested, the airports are congested. There are going to be 100 million more people by 2050," said Arena.
Councilor David Marshall, chair of the city's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee, is resurrecting a form of transportation that brings to mind nostalgic summers from nearly a century ago. On Sunday at 5 p.m., the Maine Green Independent Party is hosting a plate dinner at the Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St. in Portland, and the dinner will featured a presentation by Marshall on the history and future of streetcars in Maine.
"I'm putting together a presentation that talks about the history of streetcars in Portland and in Maine in general," Marshall said Wednesday.
In July, Michael J. Bobinsky, director of public services, sent a memo to the committee with a recommendation to create a task force to discuss the feasibility of a streetcar in Portland. Marshall said the city is looking for funds to conduct a study on public transit, including a streetcar system. In February, there's a deadline for federal funding for this type of study, he said.
Marshall will talk about the history of streetcars, including the period of "urban renewal" which involved demolition of Union Station and removal of tracks in the city. He will look at other cities involved in using streetcars.
"I know that all the trends that we're seeing as far as the downsizing of the number of cars for each famliy, the decrease in the number of cars that people own in the city of Portland, that are registered ... Portland is in a good position to really look at public transit," Marshall said.
"Streetcars is one of the ways that we could really make our city a magnet for urban development," he added.
"We're at a point where we need to make a game-changing investment in public infrastructure and specifically in public transit," Marshall said.
Streetcars could dovetail with the Amtrak rail line, he said.
"What you want to do is have all your transit systems to work together," Marshall said.
When a city invests in streetcars and rail in general, the public will see a return in investment, as private developers build around these networks, Marshall argued.
Arena said streetcars could work alongside passenger rail.
"When you bring these high speed trains in, you need to get the people around. You don't want them to just be renting cars," he said.
Arena said the extension of Amtrak service in Maine is "great" but also called it a "baby step," noting that other barriers remain.
"Maine is still separated from the rest of the Northeast corridor," he said.
A north-south rail link is needed in Boston to extend rail throughout the Northeast, Arena said.
"We think it should go all the way up to Portland at minium and it should go further south to Richmond and Charlotte," he said of the rail service.
"It's going to be a critical time for Amtrak, obviously, They have some big plans for the Northeast corridor. It's $150 billion and no way to fund it," Arena said.
Marshall said the tide is turning.
"When the decision was made to extend Amtrak in 2008 that was really a watershed year for the state of Maine; not only did we see rail get extended in the state for the first time in a while, we also saw the Portland region not request an earmark for the I-295 widening," he said, referring to a proposal to widen the interstate through Portland.
Also challenged was a Maine Turnpike widening through suburban sections of Portland, which was estimated at $70 million, Marshall said.
Davis said Train Riders/Northeast simply wants to see the Downeaster service to Brunswick beefed up so it's useful to the public. Now the goal is to establish five trips, he said.
For more about the TrainRiders/Northeast, visit http://www.trainridersne.org. For the Downeaster schedule and the Downeaster's expansion to Freeport and Brunswick, visit http://www.amtrakdowneaster.com. For more about the Green Party dinner on Sunday, see http://www.mainegreens.org.

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