Maine moving forward: rail transportation

By State Rep. Ed Mazurek | Aug 15, 2008
With fuel costs at an all-time high, Maine people are looking for every chance to lower their usage. Folks are carpooling in record numbers and reducing trips to gain control over their pocketbooks. The result of this economizing is that the state is seeing less revenue from the gas tax used to maintain important infrastructure. This trend doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon.

Much like oil and gasoline, the cost of transportation construction materials is rising at a historic pace partly because of increased demand in rapidly developing countries like China and India. Right now, Maine has hundreds of miles of posted roads and dozens of old bridges that are in need of repair. The longer we wait, the more it will cost to fix them.

A strong economy depends on a strong transportation network. Safe, updated roads and bridges are vital for businesses to start up in regions across the state, transport goods and allow employees to go to work. While that work must be done, the more long-term solution relies on finding ways to get ourselves out of this cycle of relying on the gas tax to fund transportation projects.

Expansion of mass transit, like passenger rail, will help Mainers to reduce their need for gasoline, improve our state’s impact on the environment, boost tourism and reduce the wear and tear on our roads.

In this legislative session, my colleagues and I worked to pass a bill to further invest in rail service. The initiative dedicates funding from an existing account to support transit, aeronautics and rail transportation, including the Downeaster train service. The revenue source is tied to the fees tourist pay when they rent an automobile while visiting our state. Beginning next summer, a portion of the rental car fee will go toward building a better and stronger transit system that includes much needed mass transit.

Here in Rockland, we have already seen the benefits of the popular lobster train during the annual Maine Lobster Festival. Maine Eastern Railroad reported that ridership last year was up 11 percent from the festival weekend as compared to the same period in 2006. I would expect this year’s increase to be much higher given the price of gas and the train’s growing reputation.

Many problems relating to the Route 1 corridor could be alleviated by investing in alternate modes of transportation. The more people use the train, the more traffic and parking problems will diminish; instead, people will be shopping, eating and sightseeing.

It is often thought to be a difficult proposition to design viable mass transit systems in many parts of rural Maine. Fortunately for us, our coastal location draws many tourists, workers and residents alike. Because many people are traveling to destinations within a mile or two of one another, it makes sense to provide another option to driving.

Rail investment will increase tourism and lower costs for Maine commuters, who can put those savings back into the economy. That is where the money should be and where it will do the most good.

State Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, is serving his second term representing Rockland and part of Owls Head. He is a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and the Marine Resources Committee.
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