Congress extends Downeaster funding through October, long-term outlook still uncertain

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PORTLAND — The federal funds that keep the Amtrak Downeaster rolling will continue to flow for another month, thanks to a last-minute resolution by Congress on Sept. 30.

But just how long the subsidy will continue is still uncertain.

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program funds the majority of the Downeaster’s $8 million operating expense. The CMAQ funding, specifically an exemption that allows Maine to use it for the Downeaster, was included in the six-year transportation bill that was scheduled to expire Sept. 30, the same day Congress passed a stop-gap measure that would keep transportation funding at 2009 levels until Oct. 31.

The continuing resolution was signed by President Obama and gives Congress about a month to decide on either full reauthorization of the $8.7 billion transportation bill or a longer continuing resolution.

The money is distributed to state transportation departments to use on various transit projects. In recent years, the Maine Department of Transportation has used the CMAQ money to fund the Downeaster’s operations. However, MDOT Commissioner David Cole acknowledged in an interview that shortfalls in the state transportation budget and delays in some road projects have led to mounting pressure from lawmakers to use the funds elsewhere. 

The federal transportation bill is one of several spending bills included in the Sept. 30 resolution, which was passed to prevent a government shutdown. According to several news reports, the two houses needed more time to reach an agreement on the length of the resolution. Two weeks ago, the House passed a three-month continuing resolution, but most of the Senate was leaning toward an 18-month extension.

According to Willy Ritch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, the House bill also preserves the exemption that allows Maine to use CMAQ funding for Downeaster operations.

Wayne Davis, president of TrainRiders Northeast, a Downeaster advocacy group, said that five other states had in the past used the exemption.

The state’s entire congressional delegation has previously expressed support for maintaining the provision. 

Although the month-long resolution keeps the Downeaster running, the passenger service’s long-term future is not clear, particularly if Congress sees fit to only retain the CMAQ exemption through the end of the year.

Even an 18-month resolution only prolongs the service’s funding uncertainty. A full authorization of the spending bill could buy the service another six years of funding, but it’s unknown how long the state DOT will continue to use CMAQ funds for Downeaster operations.  

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or