PARIS- When the conversation turns to passenger rail service coming to Western Maine, Tony Donovan and Glen Holmes see it all as a numbers game. 

Holmes, Executive Director of the Western Maine Economic Development Council, and Donovan, an advocate for passenger rail service who works closely with others interested in the issue, recently explained why they believe it’s going to work in Maine. Specifically, they view it as part of a rail network from Montreal to Boston, with Bethel and South Paris on the route. 

Both Holmes and Donovan will be in South Paris next week, Sept. 4, for a press conference announcing plans for the passenger service, now slated to begin in 2014, less than a year from now. It’s part of the Androscoggin, Oxford & Coos Counties Corridor Committee exploring the viability of passenger rail service in Western Maine. 

According to a press release detailing the press conference, the idea has been in the works for about six years. 

The evolution of the Androscoggin, Oxford & Coos Counties Corridor Committee (AOCCC) dates to Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce (BAC) discussions begun around 2007 directed in response to on-going Maine Department of Transportation studies for expansion of passenger rail in Maine. The Maine DOT was conducting a statewide Passenger Rail Plan study and a federally funded study of rail as an alternative to traffic congestion on highways north of Portland Maine (The Portland North Alternative Modes Project), the release says. 

“Most of our work is based on the number of studies done by the Maine Department of Transportation in August 2011,” Donovan said in a telephone interview this week from his office in Portland. 

“Why is this going to work? The cost of automobiles is not working. The cost of roads we are being asked to invest in the state of Maine is $100 million. DOT (Department of Transportation) estimates a $700 million shortfall in road reconstruction costs in the state of Maine,” Donovan said, reciting all of the numbers with confidence and reassurance.

Then he added more digits. 

“The cost of a car is $26,000,” Donovan said. “AAA (American Automobile Association) estimates that the ownership costs $8,800 for a car. We indicate that ownership costs to a consumer is up to $ 12,000 per year. If you have three cars, it’s a good chance you’re spending $30,000 (annually) out of that household.” 

“I can put you in a train for a round trip for $20 a day, $100 a week, $5,000 a year.”

The two are hoping their passion for passenger rail, augmented by the statistics, pose a compelling argument for passenger service coming to the area. For Holmes, whose position is partially funded through the Oxford County Commissioners, it’s also a matter of economic development. 

“From an economic development perspective, all the models show that within three quarters of a mile (of rail service), the economic impact is exponential,” said Holmes, comparing it to a small elementary school where students often frequent businesses near their schools. 

Adds Donovan, “When I build a road, it costs up to $2 million a mile for a typical roadway, and it has to be reconstructed every 10 years.” He says every time roads are being paved, the return in jobs don’t always match the long-term costs of maintenance and repair. 

“If we keep putting money into roads, we’re going to break the bank,” he said. “I do not exactly speak for the corridor towns. Our interest is reducing consumer costs.”

“What’s going to happen when 1,500 people get off at that ice cream stand?”

Both Holmes and Donovan highlight how rural areas in Maine have an extensive rail network that has been in place since the 1840s, serving Lewiston, Auburn, Bethel, Norway and Paris. 

By most accounts, according to Holmes, people who live within walking distance of passenger rail will often utilize it to travel longer distances. Also, businesses tend to locate there, adding to additional traffic within the train station’s parameters.

What happens, he said, is you end up with people who live within walking distance. Increase traffic within this train station. 

More appropriately, Holmes added, passenger rail service in Maine is not a novelty. It has been going on for years. 

“What this corridor committee is trying to do is draw attention to Western Maine,” Holmes states. He’s hopeful it will allow people to live along the track and go to work. He’s also hopeful about getting the towns to sign off on the idea. He said that has been the motivation since representatives from Golden Eagle, the likely train operator, approached the Western Maine Economic Development Council. 

“Like so many things in our country, things are cyclical,” Holmes said about the resurgence of train travel. “The automobile exploded. We’re now realizing the costs. It’s good for the planet, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for us.” 

“Hopefully, it’ll all work.”