Money to fund study of proposed train between Portland and Lewiston falls short, advocates say

The plan to connect Portland and Lewiston-Auburn with a passenger train line hit another snag last month when Gov. Paul LePage’s administration declined to release $250,000 budgeted to study the rail expansion, according to proponents of the project.

The Legislature last June instructed the Department of Transportation to spend $500,000 to hire a company to analyze the economic impact and viability of the line, overriding multiple vetoes from LePage, who later featured the project on his June Christmas tree of wasteful spending. Lawmakers also earmarked $150,000 from the general fund for this study and asked Lewiston and Auburn to send $50,000 each to the DOT, which the cities did.

In the spring, the Department of Transportation tapped the Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council to solicit bids to do the study, for a fee of $25,000. Then, in June, a department official informed the council’s president by email that the group would not have $500,000 to pay for the project, but rather $250,000, including its coordination fee, according to emails between the agencies.

This is not the first issue that the train study has run into. Since passing, the legislated study of the train line, which boosters argue will be an economic boon to Lewiston and Auburn and hope to eventually connect up to Montreal, has been repeatedly delayed and passed from organization to organization.

It’s part of a broader issue “of the legislature passing things in the budget and the governor refusing to fund them,” said Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, a proponent of the train line. The $500,000 figure had been arrived at by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and withholding half of it “will put at jeopardy the quality of the analysis and the development of a workable service plan,” Golden and four other state lawmakers wrote in a letter to the DOT Thursday.

The governor has long opposed spending money on studies, and a representative of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition said LePage is especially set against the train proposal.

“I met directly with the governor in his office and he said: ‘I don’t do trains. We do busses. I don’t like trains’,” said Tony Donovan. Lewiston City Manager Ed Barrett said he did not recall whether the governor spoke those exact words but confirmed that they are in the spirit of LePage’s comments at the June 2015 meeting, which he also attended.

A member of the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review said earlier this week that the bill instructs the DOT to spend $500,000 on the study.

“$500k has been allocated for this purpose, so in my opinion 500k should be spent per the budget,” wrote a senior Fiscal and Program Review staffer in an email shared with BDN Portland on the condition that the civil servant not be named.

But the DOT disagrees.

Based on its “reasonable interpretation of the law,” the DOT has up to $500,000 to spend on the study and has determined that the job only requires half that sum, said department spokesman Ted Talbot. The full sum is available and can be dispersed if needed, Talbot also said.

Asked how the DOT determined that half of the budgeted money for the project was not needed, Talbot said, “It is determined within the department at the executive level.”

He later added that the decision was based on the DOT’s long experience in studying transportation and referred questions about LePage’s involvement to the governor’s office.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to questions for this story.