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In the Public Interest: The Little Train that Could ... and Did

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When President Obama took office in 2009, he brought with him the greatest hope in decades for reinvestment in the nation's passenger rail system.

The public focus was on "high-speed rail," but many of the investments made by the Obama administration and Congress were small-bore improvements to the nation's existing rail infrastructure designed to put reliable, quality passenger rail service within reach of more Americans.

Somewhere along the way, however, passenger rail became a political football, with Tea Party governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich all but tying themselves to the tracks to prevent construction of new rail lines in their states.

It's time they took a second look at what they're missing, and Maine is a good place to start. Ten years in, Maine's experiment with the restoration of passenger rail service is paying big dividends, proving that passenger rail has an important place in the nation's transportation future.

Maine's Downeaster rail line got its start as the improbable dream of a group of plucky citizen activists who envisioned running trains on a section of track between Boston and Portland, Maine, that last saw passenger traffic in 1965. After more than a decade of determined work, capped by passage of a citizen ballot initiative, the Downeaster made its initial run in December 2001.

The train was an immediate hit -- a 1990 study projected that the line would ultimately attract about 167,000 passengers each year, a figure that it quickly surpassed. Last year, the train carried more than half a million passengers -- twice as many as in 2005.

The Downeaster's top speed of 79 mph won't give the bullet trains of Japan or Europe much of a run for their money. But it is plenty fast enough to provide a comfortable, convenient alternative to driving. By linking tourist destinations, bedroom communities, and college towns to the commercial centers of Boston and Portland, the Downeaster serves a variety of travel markets, from commuters to vacationers.

It wouldn't exist, however, without a sustained commitment from Maine taxpayers and the federal government, which has made critical investments in track improvements over the years. While the Downeaster brings in more than $7 million a year in fares, concession revenue and parking, the state of Maine still provides significant funding through a pass-through of federal transportation funds and a tax on car rentals.

The benefits of those investments more than outweigh the costs. More than $350 million worth of public and private development projects have been started or completed near Downeaster stations, while the visitors attracted by the train are estimated to pump $12 million addition into the state's economy each year.

Results like that have enabled the Downeaster to draw support from across the partisan divide. Last year, Maine's Republican U.S. Senators, along with the state's Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, voiced their support for a federal grant to improve service on the Downeaster. And the state is in the midst of a project to extend the line beyond Portland to the towns of Freeport and Brunswick that will further boost ridership.

The success of the Downeaster is proof of the benefits that investments in passenger rail can bring to communities, the environment, and the economy. Maine isn't the only place where Americans are hungering for alternatives to crowded airports and congested highways - Amtrak has broken ridership records in eight of the past nine years, with ridership up 44 percent since fiscal 2000.

In an era of high gasoline prices and limited transportation choices, the case for investment in passenger rail is clear. In some places, true high-speed rail is the answer. But in others, simply getting the trains rolling again is an important first step. Ten years later, Maine's Downeaster has gone from uncertain experiment to unqualified success. It's time that officials elsewhere in the country took notice and followed suit.

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