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Northeast Amtrak corridor awarded billions for improvements, but not in Maine


Northeast Amtrak corridor awarded billions for improvements, but not in Maine

Nov 20, 2023 | 4:40 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
Northeast Amtrak corridor awarded billions for improvements, but not in Maine
Passengers prepare to board an Amtrak train. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Federal dollars are pouring into rail projects across the country, including right here in New England, but local lawmakers fear Maine may be missing its opportunity to jump on board.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced $16.4 billion in improvement projects for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The 25 projects between Boston and Washington D.C. will include track upgrades, rebuilding tunnels and bridges, and efforts to increase operating speeds. 

That money is just a slice of the $66 billion rail investment coming out of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that’s sending money across the country to bolster passenger rail. 

But Maine has only been included in a $9.6 million project to improve sections of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad’s 162-mile corridor that also runs through Vermont and New Hampshire.

That’s not for a lack of interest on a local level. 

Between 2021 and 2022, Amtrak’s Downeaster line that runs along the coast from Brunswick to Boston saw ridership more than double

The state is calling for Mainers to reduce the number of vehicle miles driven to support climate goals, and there’s public support for increased train travel. The Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce said it supports extending passenger rail to Bangor. The Maine Rail Group is advocating for that, too. 

State Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot) called this a “unique moment” in history with the strong support of passenger rail from the Biden administration, evidenced by the volume of funding it is putting into rail.

So why aren’t more of those federal dollars traveling into Maine?

“We’re really not stepping up to the plate,” Baldacci said. “This should be the time Maine is trying to expand and improve its service.”

He pointed to Vermont — which extended Amtrak service from Rutland to Burlington in 2022 — as a nearby example of what could be possible in Maine. And Vermont’s congressional delegation is trying to connect the state to Quebec via Amtrak, according to a letter they sent to the chair of the Amtrak Board of Directors in September.

Jen Flanagan, a spokesperson for Amtrak, said before the end of the year the Federal Railroad Administration, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will be announcing further grant awards for two programs that could fund rail improvements or expansions in Maine: the Corridor Identification and Development (Corridor ID) program and the Fed-State Partnership-National Network program.

“While we can’t predict which projects or corridors will be selected for funding through those programs, we are hopeful that the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation will receive funding when those grant selections are announced!” Flanagan wrote in an emailed statement.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said for her part that she’s working to ensure full annual funding for Amtrak and programs such as the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program. 

The CRISI program includes grants that can upgrade rail stations and tracks in Maine, as well as “provide opportunities for more projects to come to life — from Portland and Falmouth to Brunswick and Rockland,” her statement said. 

“I am confident that the landmark infrastructure law will help realize rail transit’s potential in our state,” she added.

The offices of Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Jared Golden did not respond to requests for comment from Maine Morning Star. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation voted in support of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Collins, a Republican, is currently vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which allocates funding, and is a member of the transportation subcommittee.

Although Baldacci said it’s the congressional delegation that really needs to “flex some muscle,” Baldacci is pushing on the state level for greater rail access for more Mainers. Earlier this year, he introduced a bill to conduct a feasibility study to identify potential lines between Bangor and Portland. 

That bill was carried over to the upcoming legislative session. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a response from Amtrak as well as Sen. Susan Collins’ committee assignment.