Supporters Hope Biden Infrastructure Plan Has Money To Expand Passenger Rail In Maine, New England

Mar 30, 2021

President Joe Biden is expected to reveal a $3 trillion infrastructure plan on Wednesday, and some rail supporters hope it will contain money for something called the North Atlantic Rail plan.

That’s a $105 billion proposal that would establish a new, high-speed passenger line between New York City and Boston. North Atlantic Rail backers say some of the $105 billion would pay to upgrade existing lines, including Maine’s Downeaster, and expand service to other cities and towns across New England.

Paul Weiss likes what he sees in the North Atlantic Rail plan.

“It’s very appropriate to the times that we’re in,” he says.

Weiss is a board member of two Maine rail support groups, the the Maine Rail Group and the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.

“The timing, I think, is excellent and it very much reflects what we’re doing in Maine, and what we’re doing in Maine is integrated and part of that plan, actually,” he says.

Maine Rail Group is pushing to extend passenger service northward through Augusta and Waterville to Bangor. The Maine Rail Transit Coalition wants to see rail service to Lewiston, which it estimates would cost about $300 million.

Finding that kind of money, of course, has been a challenge. The state hasn’t been able to fully fund maintenance of its road network, and federal programs for rail have been few and far between. Until, maybe, now.

“Do you realize there are more people that get in an Amtrak train on the East Coast than every single solitary person that gets on and off an aircraft from Maine to Florida every day?” then Vice President Biden said in a speech in 2015.

Biden has been both a longtime user and supporter of Amtrak. Among train enthusiasts like Weiss, hopes are high that Biden’s infrastructure package might fund the North Atlantic Rail plan.

And Bob Yaro, who serves on the North Atlantic Rail steering committee, says the $105 billion price tag is quite reasonable. Yaro, a former president of New York’s Regional Plan Association, made his case on the New England News Collaborative radio program NEXT.

“For a region with 11% of the population of the country and 14% of its economy, we think this is in scale with the enormity of the region and its economy,” he said.

But there are skeptics of the scale of the North Atlantic Rail plan, even among Maine rail supporters.

“You know, at my age, I don’t get too excited at 20-year plans,” says Wayne Davis of Trainriders Northeast, who’s 86 now.

Davis spent more than a decade organizing the citizen effort that finally produced the Downeaster, currently Maine’s only passenger rail service.

“We try to keep our eye on the prize, which is keeping the Downeaster. I will tell you that when we started, I don’t think any of us thought that after a 12-year battle we would have to fight to keep it running,” he says.

The trains actually did stop for a time when the pandemic started last spring, but are expected to return to a full schedule by summer.

Davis and Trainriders are focused these days on a more modest goal: creating a service from North Station in Boston, where the Downeaster ends, down to New York. The new link would require a simple walk across the platform, rather than a walk, subway or cab ride across downtown Boston to reach South Station and the rest of the Amtrak network.

Davis says that’s not only a more modest goal, but one that could be accomplished with as little as $11 million-$30 million in rail upgrades.

But North Atlantic Rail enthusiasts continue to press on. In his appearance on NEXT, Yaro said he expects to know soon if the the plan can become a reality.

“We’re now reaching out to the entire, seven-state congressional delegation to gain their support, and we’re working with the Biden administration to gain their support for this thing, so it either happens or it doesn’t happen in the next few months,” he said.

The time frame could even be shorter than that, with President Biden about to unveil his Build Back Better infrastructure plan.