Brunswick council begins campaign for Downeaster

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BRUNSWICK — With Brunswick’s $2 million investment in the $23 million Maine Street Station project on a track to get larger, the Town Council on Monday expressed its unanimous support for the proposed extension of the Amtrak Downeaster.

Extension of the current service from Portland to Brunswick would not only enhance the Maine Street Station project, but provide a direct link between downtown Brunswick and Boston, the Downeaster’s southern terminus. The project, which requires $35 million in rail upgrades, has been discussed for the last two years. 

Now, with a funding mechanism put in place last year by the Legislature, the Town Council wants to make sure the state and Gov. John Baldacci follow through on their support for the project.

The stakes are particularly high for the council, which has made Maine Street Station a top priority. In addition, the town has already committed more than $2 million to the development in land and infrastructure costs. That investment could increase if the council successfully negotiates to become the master tenant of the train station and visitor’s center.

Although the Maine Eastern Railroad will stop at Maine Street Station, many councilors believe the viability of the station and visitor’s center depends on the Downeaster. The station could be home to several transit-oriented tenants, such as bus or car rental services. However, those companies might be more reluctant to lease space if the Downeaster doesn’t make it to Brunswick.

While the funding for the Portland-Brunswick rail improvement plan is in place, continuation of the Downeaster’s operating subsidy is not definite.

The Downeaster subsidy has typically come through an annual allocation from the Maine Department of Transportation, which in turn receives money from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.

CMAQ dollars account for 80 percent of the Downeaster’s operational budget. The remainder comes from a state grant program.

CMAQ funds are expected to dry up Sept. 30.

Baldacci has expressed support for the Downeaster, but his biennial budget did not include any funding for the service. A spokesman for Baldacci in January said the governor was working with the state’s congressional delegation to seek an extension of the CMAQ funds.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the Downeaster, added that the service is discussing the future of the state’s grant program with MDOT.

Quinn recently said that there has been no definite movement on either front. 

On Monday, Councilor Margo Knight said the town should join the lobbying effort and form a coalition with NNEPRA and other stakeholders. 

“Some will say that we’re way behind,” Knight said. “But it’s better late than never.”

The council’s endorsement will trigger a series of letters to Baldacci and the town’s legislative and congressional delegations. 

Councilor Ben Tucker said that Baldacci and the town’s representatives in the Legislature and on Capitol Hill needed to hear “over and over” why the Downeaster is important to Brunswick’s economic future. 

The service experienced spikes in ridership last year when gas prices reached all-time highs. This week NNEPRA  announced a dip in ridership for March. 

Meanwhile, the Downeaster and Amtrak have also gained more national attention under new funding initiatives introduced by President Barack Obama. Quinn last week said she hoped those commitments in Washington would reverberate nationally and locally.

Several other towns along the Downeaster line have invested in upgraded facilities to accommodate the service’s increased ridership. Saco recently opened a $2.2 million facility, while the University of New Hampshire last year spent $940,000 to revamp its station. 

Last week a committee in Exeter, N.H., unveiled plans to improve the current platform into a larger, multi-modal station. 

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext.123 or