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Federal plan could alter Portland-Brunswick rail upgrade funding

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Federal plan could alter Portland-Brunswick rail upgrade funding

Grant could replace state borrowing

PORTLAND — Rail advocates are hoping the $35 million needed to upgrade tracks between Portland and Brunswick will qualify for grant funding under a new strategic plan being drafted by federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

LaHood is responsible for creating a railroad infrastructure plan and supplemental funding guidelines for the $8 billion attached to the recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The federal stimulus bill includes $1.3 billion for Amtrak to nearly double its capital reinvestment program.

Funding priorities for the new railroad infrastructure plan aren't expected to be announced by LaHood's office until April 18. The Transportation Department is required to tell states how to apply for grants by June.

Meanwhile, Gov. John Baldacci and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the administrative arm of the Amtrak Downeaster, are hopeful the Portland-Brunswick rail improvement project will be eligible for a slice of the $8 billion.

The project is already slated for funding under a bill enacted by the Legislature last year. That bill takes an estimated $2.5 million per year from the state's car rental tax and puts it into a rail and aviation fund. Those funds would be used to repay the $35 million the state would have to borrow from the Federal Railroad Administration for rail upgrades.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA, said Monday that the state borrowing plan is still on schedule. However, she said NNEPRA is awaiting LaHood's infrastructure plan to see if the loan program can be replaced with a grant.

"We're still pursuing the (state funding)," Quinn said. "But it would be wonderful to get the grant, if that's available."

Competition for federal funding is expected to be fierce. Leaders in more than 30 states have announced plans to improve rail infrastructure, with some promoting high-speed rail projects.

High-speed rail remains a priority for President Barack Obama and other leaders who say it's time for America to invest in a transit system that can compete with the airlines and move travelers quickly between major U.S. cities. 

As public interest in rail has increased, Amtrak has ramped up its advertising for its Acela, the train that runs up to 135 mph. Meanwhile, states like California have proposed high-speed corridors that would carry passengers up to 220 mph.

The Downeaster, by comparison, can reach speeds of up to 80 mph. 

It's unclear if the interest in high-speed rail will be reflected in LaHood's strategic plan, and therefore, make the Portland-Brunswick upgrade project less of a funding priority. 

Nonetheless, Quinn and other rail advocates believe the upgrade is a perfect example of the type of job-creation project the federal stimulus bill was intended to fund.

Two major development projects – Freeport's $45 million Village Station and Brunswick's $23 million Maine Street Station – have rail components as their nexus. Proponents of those developments have touted the Downeaster's proposed extension to Brunswick.

The rail improvement project is already a priority in the Maine Department of Transportation's stimulus funding list. 

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