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Work to begin on Downeaster extension to Brunswick

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Work to begin on Downeaster extension to Brunswick

BRUNSWICK — After years of hoping and waiting, proponents of the extension of Amtrak Downeaster service to Brunswick will soon have something to cheer.

State officials and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that work on more than 26 miles of railroad tracks between Portland and Brunswick will begin shortly. 

The project follows the finalization of a $35 million grant made available in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and via the Obama administration's renewed focus on modernizing the country's rail infrastructure.

The long-awaited project will upgrade 36 highway rail grade crossings, wayside signals along the Pan Am-owned line running from the Portland Transportation Center to the Brunswick Branch.

The project is expected to be complete in the fall of 2012 and benefit the Downeaster, which plans to add stops in Freeport and Brunswick. Officials in both communities have anxiously awaited the extension.

Brunswick officials claim passenger rail service linking the town with Portland and Boston will help it recover from the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and brand Brunswick as a destination.

Passenger service to points south could also aid the Maine Street Station project, a multi-use development that has had a slow build-out because of the economy.

Freeport, meanwhile, expects the Downeaster to provide another way for shoppers and tourists to reach what a Yankee magazine reader poll recently called New England's favorite shopping town. Recently the town completed construction of the Village Station shopping mall, adjacent to a proposed train platform at Bow Street and Depot Road.

The Downeaster, meanwhile, has boasted strong ridership, generating $40 million in fares in 2009.

The service is also heavily reliant on state and federal subsidies, the continued availability of which is frequently in doubt.

Maintaining the passenger rail's $8 million operating subsidy will require a two-pronged effort, the most difficult of which will occur on Capitol Hill as lawmakers push for reauthorization of a six-year, $500 billion federal transportation bill.

The spending plan includes money for state transportation departments. In Maine's case, it also includes an exception that would allow the state to use funds in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program to fund the Downeaster.

According to officials in the state Department of Transportation, Maine is one of just two states with the exception. The other is Oregon.

The exception is critical to the Downeaster, because CMAQ funds account for the majority of its operating budget.

Despite the uncertainty, proponents and members of the state's congressional delegation are confident the service will continue receive funding.

During the formal announcement of the $35 million grant in February, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said funding helped strengthen the state's case for the CMAQ exception.

"It would be difficult for them to help us expand and then cut the operations funding," Pingree said. "This certainly gives us some leverage in the debate."

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, added that the state's delegation is pressing to make the CMAQ exception permanent. That effort is being spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce.

This week, Snowe said the extension is also a "great stride in creating more jobs and fostering economic growth, not to mention providing a tremendous service to Mainers and visitors alike."

"Indeed, the grant validates the unceasing diligence of the people who promote, manage and operate the Downeaster, a truly invaluable transportation and economic asset," Snowe said.

In a blog post earlier this week, U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood lauded the state for pushing  for the extension, which fits into President Obama's agenda for high-speed rail development.

"I wrote yesterday that, as we move forward on high-speed rail in the US, we want to get it right," LaHood wrote. "That means taking what already works – like the Downeaster – and making it faster, with more capacity and improved connectivity. And that is exactly what we are doing in Maine."

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the administrative arm of the Downeaster, said Wednesday that NNEPRA will host a media event when rails are delivered later this month.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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