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Brunswick base airport heightens funding competition; redevelopment agency hopes to tap STAR account

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Brunswick base airport heightens funding competition; redevelopment agency hopes to tap STAR account

BRUNSWICK — The agency redeveloping Brunswick Naval Air Station is seeking a $1.3 million slice of a state fund already eyed for other transit projects, including expanded operations for the Amtrak Downeaster and airports currently undergoing modernization projects.

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority announced last week that it had reached a preliminary agreement with the state Department of Transportation to begin tapping the State Transit Aviation Rail account to help fund civilian airport operations at the decommissioning U.S. Navy base.

The agency anticipates operating at a loss while attempting to lure private airplanes and aircraft manufacturing and overhaul companies to the facility. Redevelopment officials hope to begin airport operations later this year, months ahead of the Navy's sceduled departure in May 2011.

The agreement with DOT would allow the agency to draw up to $300,000 annually from the STAR account for five years. The agreement states that the agency would pay back the borrowed funds once the airport becomes profitable.

The loan agreement was welcome news for the redevelopment authority, which last year confirmed that it was eyeing federal money for the airport, in the form of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds.

CMAQ funds have been used to subsidize about 80 percent of the Downeaster's current operations.

According to a DOT spokesman, the Downeaster was also competing for STAR account funds to help pay for its expanded operations to Brunswick. Last year the state received a $35 million federal grant to rehabilitate the tracks, a project that could bring the Downeaster to Brunswick by 2012.

Additionally, other transit projects were expected to compete for STAR funds. The account is funded by aviation fuel sales and in 2008 was altered by the state Legislature to include a portion of the state's car rental tax collections.

Advocates for Downeaster extension played a significant role in pushing the 2008 legislation.

It's unclear how much money is generated by the STAR account, or how much of it would be used by the redevelopment authority if the agreement goes through.

However, Mark Latti, the DOT spokesman, acknowledged that funding the Brunswick airport could potentially pull dollars from competing needs, including the Downeaster, the state's aging fleet of buses and airports already undergoing modernization.

That doesn't include the Portland International Jetport, which is in the midst of a $75 million terminal expansion. However, it could impact the Auburn/Lewiston Airport, which hopes to begin a $10 million runway expansion.

Rick Cloutier, the manager of the Auburn airport, said that although the facility hadn't yet utilized STAR funding, it hoped to in the future. 

"We'd love to have access to those funds," Cloutier said. "We've already secured about $6 million in federal funding to upgrade our facility and we're always looking for ways to offset costs to the local taxpayers."

Paul Bradbury, director at the Portland Jetport, said smaller airports are particularly reliant on STAR funding to maintain and repair runways. Although the Jetport isn't likely to feel an impact because it is "self-sustaining," he said diverting money to one facility could be problematic.

"A lot of that tax money is generated at other airports," Bradbury said, adding that a significant amount of STAR money is drawn from aviation fuel sales at Portland.

"To see it all go to (BNAS) is unfortunate," he said.

Steve Levesque, the executive director of MRRA, rejected the idea that his agency was taking away from other transit needs, reiterating the agreement's stipulation that the authority will pay the loan back once the airport becomes profitable, rather seeking a flat-out appropriation from the state.

"We're not looking to be greedy here," said Levesque, adding that his agency has to raise about $160 million to support its management of the base. "My job is to redevelop the base and I'm going to be aggressive looking for ways to fund that effort. If that means other people are going to have to share a little, then that means they're going to have to share a little."

STAR money had also been eyed by proponents of the state's purchase of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway tracks in Aroostook County. The project, estimated at $17 million, could receive $5 million if voters approve a state bond package in June and November.

"At this stage, right now (DOT) is at a point where we need to prioritize competing needs," Latti said. "There's not enough money to maintain our current infrastructure ... but (DOT Commissioner David Cole) and (Gov. John Baldacci) have identified Brunswick Naval Air Station as a priority."

Last year, Baldacci assured rail advocates that he would seek operations funding for the Downeaster after omitting its state subsidy from his biennial budget. The service is also reliant on a rare exception in CMAQ funding, which members of the delegation have warned could be discontinued depending on Congress' reauthorization of the federal transportation bill.

Despite the funding uncertainty, the Downeaster has proved to have influential advocates, as evidenced by the state's securing of the $35 million federal grant for the Portland-Brunswick rail upgrade.

Extending the service north is significant for Freeport and Brunswick, which have new development projects with rail components: Village Station and Maine Street Station, respectively.

Despite concerns that the base agency's use of STAR funding could hurt the chances of the Downeaster reaching Brunswick, Gary Brown, the town manager, said he was still optimistic.

"(Baldacci) has assured us that funding the Downeaster is a priority," Brown said. "At this point that's what we're going on."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net