Decision anticipated at Feb. 26 board meeting

Citizens, business owners urged to weigh in on Amtrak Downeaster to Rockland decision

Posted:  Saturday, February 17, 2018 - 7:30pm
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The Board of Directors of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is seeking public comment regarding the proposed seasonal weekend expansion of Amtrak Downeaster service to Rockland this coming summer. Business owners with the Penobscot Bay Chamber of Commerce have been urged to lend their thoughts about the train extension, and on Feb. 14, the Rockland Main Street, Inc., board of directors sent a letter to the Authority, endorsing the pilot project.
 
The Authority’s board of directors meets Feb. 26, and may make their decision then about extending Amtrak’s Downeaster service to the Midcoast. The board is inviting comments; email Patricia Quinn, executive director, at Patricia@nnepra.com.
 
The Rail Authority is a public transportation authority created in 1995 by the Maine Legislature to develop and provide passenger rail service between Maine and Boston and points within Maine. The Authority manages the budget, contracts, promotion, and customer services associated with the Downeaster passenger rail service. It holds a 20-year agreement with Amtrak to operate the Downeaster rail service between Portland and Boston and is party to agreements with host railroads, i.e., Pan Am Railways and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 
 
If the Authority proceeds with the Amtrak extension to Rockland, the Downeaster would make stops in Bath, Wiscasset, Newcastle and Rockland.  Passenger service has not operated on this line since the Maine Eastern Railroad ceased operations in 2016.

The Maine Department of Transportation owns the rail line between Brunswick and Rockland (Rockland Branch) and has contracted with the Central Maine and Quebec Railroad (CMQ) to be the line operator.  The CMQ only operates freight service, but is able to contract with other operators, such as Amtrak, to operate passenger service. 

Because the Downeaster currently terminates/originates three of its five round trips in Brunswick, and houses train sets in Brunswick overnight, the potential exists for Amtrak to operate weekend seasonal Coastal service using the existing equipment pool and crews used to operate the Downeaster service. 

On Feb. 14, the Rockland Main Street, Inc., board of directors sent a letter to Authority Chairman John Melrose, endorsing the Downeaster extension to Rockland. Gordon Page, executive director of the nonprofit, wrote:

Dear John,

I write this letter on behalf of the Board of Directors of Rockland Main Street, Inc., and in full support of the proposed pilot project to extend Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail service to Rockland beginning later this year.

Rockland Main Street, Inc. is a focused partnership of residents, businesses and local government that enhances and protects the unique sense of place and economic vitality of downtown Rockland, Maine.

As the eastern terminus of the Rockland branch, the City of Rockland has a rich railroad history that includes the extant Maine Central Railroad Depot built in 1918, currently owned by the State of Maine. The interior of the 6,000 square-foot building was renovated in 2006 to house a popular family-style restaurant and the administrative offices of the former contract rail operator; and the exterior was fully restored under the watchful eye of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission in 2008.

The track system between Brunswick and Rockland is in excellent shape and currently serves active freight rail customers. The recent decade-long operation of the Maine Eastern Railroad passenger excursion operation should be positively viewed as a valuable look into the future of anticipated success for restored passenger service with the proposed Downeaster Coastal Connection.

Rockland is an important cultural destination, with a vibrant and historic downtown that boasts a healthy Main Street containing two dozen art galleries and museums, 30 dining establishments, and more than 50 retail shops and boutiques within walking distance of the station. The entrance to the foot of Main Street and the downtown shopping district is one- tenth of a mile from the passenger boarding platform.

There are more than 250 hotel and bed & breakfast rooms and suites in, and adjacent to the downtown district, plus several dozen short-term rental and independent lodging options.

A transportation hub intersected by U.S. Route One, Rockland offers critical state ferry service to 3 year-round island communities; an airport that provides direct service to Boston, mail delivery to offshore islands, and charter air service for business and personal purposes; a valued stop along the Bangor to Boston bus route; and an increasingly important port of call for cruise ships on the western shore of Penobscot Bay.

The restoration of passenger rail service will further enhance community and economic development in Rockland and will bolster the City’s reputation as a place to explore, conduct business, invest, and vacation.

The Lobster Capital of the World, Rockland is also the Festival & Event Capital of Maine where reasons to visit include but are not limited to:

June
Summer Solstice Celebration Street & Dock Parties; Maine Lobster Boat Race

July
Great Schooner Race; Maine Windjammer Parade; North Atlantic Blues Festival;

Friendship Sloop Society Homecoming Rendezvous & Races

August
Maine Lobster Festival; Maine Boats Homes & Harbors Show; Rockland Sculpture Race

September
Millay Arts & Poetry Festival

October
Fall Family Festival & Scarecrow Exhibit

November
Festival of Lights

Just as important, Rockland will become a starting point for rail travel where residents and visitors in midcoast Maine can take a train all the way to Boston to connect to the national rail system.

Incorporated in 1854 and once known as East Thomaston and Shore Village, Rockland is a year-round, full-service municipality and the seat of Knox County government, housing important downtown infrastructure that supports local, state, county and federal agencies, and providing essential services including financial institutions, insurance agencies, law firms, and health and personal care.

The board of directors of Rockland Main Street, Inc. recognize the proposed Downeaster Coastal Connection as one more economic and community development tool to continue the ongoing revitalization of Downtown Rockland, and greater exposure for the entire City.

Rockland Main Street, Inc. is committed to working with City staff and elected officials and others to help the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority validate its decision to move forward with the proposed pilot project to extend passenger rail service to Rockland.