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Baldacci reassures Brunswick councilors, Bowdoin College about Downeaster

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Baldacci reassures Brunswick councilors, Bowdoin College about Downeaster

BRUNSWICK — Gov. John Baldacci last week reassured officials from Brunswick, Freeport and Bowdoin College about his commitment to the Amtrak Downeaster and the proposed extension of the passenger service.

The meeting with Baldacci was sparked by concerns that the governor's support for the Downeaster was wavering amid state transportation budget pressures. Baldacci did not include operations funding for the service in his biennial budget, nor did he send a Maine representative to a recent high-speed rail conference with the Obama Administration, an absence some rail advocates interpreted as either ominous or a costly oversight. 

Baldacci has defended Maine's absence, arguing that he has spoken with Vice President Joe Biden directly about Maine's chances to secure stimulus funding for a proposed rail rehabilitation project that could facilitate the Downeaster's extension from Portland to Brunswick. The $35 million project is of particular concern to Freeport and Brunswick, where two development projects – Village Station and Maine Street Station, respectively – have significant rail components.

The stakes are even higher for Brunswick. The town has already committed close to $3 million to the development of the $23.5 million Maine Street Station. Brunswick recently increased its investment in the project, this winter signing a five-year sublease for municipal meeting space. And, just last week, the Town Council voted to enter a five-year, $220,000 lease agreement with the developer to become the master tenant of the project's train station.

With so much riding on Maine Street Station's success, the Brunswick delegation sought assurances that Baldacci is fighting for the Downeaster's continued operation and the Portland-Brunswick extension.

According to acting Town Manager Gary Brown, Baldacci told the group that he planned to pursue stimulus money for the Portland-Brunswick project while working with the state's congressional delegation to seek the continuation of the Downeaster's federal operating subsidy. That subsidy, derived from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds, is scheduled to end Sept. 30. 

CMAQ funds account for 80 percent of the Downeaster's operating budget. The state has historically chipped in the other 20 percent. The absence of the latter in the biennial budget recently ratified by the Legislature triggered concerns that Maine is withdrawing its support for the service.

But, according to town officials, the governor said the state could still cobble together funding for the service. 

"Apparently there's that much play in the state budget," Town Council Vice Chairman Benet Pols said Tuesday.

Pols said that while the governor made no substantive commitment, he essentially told stakeholders that they "were preaching to the choir" about the merits of continuing the Downeaster service. 

Pols and Brown said the majority of the delegation left the meeting feeling more confident about the Downeaster's continued operation, and its extension to Brunswick.

"Many councilors expressed their feeling that they are back to anticipating the arrival of the train, rather than worrying about whether or not it will come," Brown said in a press release. 

That arrival, Brown said, is expected within the next two years. 

Bowdoin College's increased public support of the Downeaster signals the college's substantial financial investment in Maine Street Station. Bowdoin has leases in two of the buildings under construction. In the 1990s it worked with the town to clean up a portion of the site abutting the project for the construction of the McLellan Building.

According to Katy Longley, the college's representative at the meeting with Baldacci, Bowdoin has invested "millions of dollars" in Maine Street Station, including the development of McLellan.

Longley, in an e-mail message, said Bowdoin has a strong interest in the re-establishment of train service to Brunswick, both in terms of the economic viability of Maine Street Station and for the betterment of the college's students. 

"The (incoming Class of 2013) will be the first class not permitted to bring cars as freshmen," Longley wrote. "That amounts to about 140 fewer cars on campus. ... We see the train as one more attraction and we are in full support of multi-modal transportation options for the community."

"All told, the College is investing a considerable sum of money at Maine Street Station in the hopes that the development will be a success and that the train will be part of the overall project," Longley wrote.

She also said the meeting with Baldacci was productive, and Brown echoed that sentiment.

"I think the council left feeling more confident about the extension of train service than what they'd been hearing locally the last few months," he said. 

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