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Maine joins regional coalition to lobby for Downeaster extension, faster speeds

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Maine joins regional coalition to lobby for Downeaster extension, faster speeds

AUGUSTA — With the filing deadline to present rail projects qualifying for stimulus funding fast approaching, Gov. John Baldacci announced Monday that he has joined a coalition of New England governors to create a unified rail vision for the region.

Six priority projects were identified, one for each state. Leading Maine's list are two projects that could ultimately extend the Amtrak Downeaster north to Freeport and Brunswick and make its existing Portland-to-Boston service faster and more frequent. 

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, recently announced that the passenger service was applying for two separate grants for the projects. However, Baldacci's announcement marks the first time that they were being pitched as part of a coordinated regional plan. 

The plan, dubbed "The Vision for the New England High Speed and Intercity Rail Network," is being submitted to federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as part of a competitive application process during which rail projects from across the country will seek $13 billion made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Included in that $13 billion is $8 billion the Obama Administration wants to dedicate to the development of a national high-speed rail network.

According to a release sent from the governor's office, transportation heads from all six New England states will meet with the region's congressional delegation to coordinate applications for their respective rail projects. 

NNEPRA hopes that the Downeaster will win some of the high-speed money so that it can reduce travel times and make seven round trips a day. The service averages 2 1/2 hours between Portland and Boston, which is generally slower than driving. The Downeaster offers five round trips a day. 

Meanwhile, NNEPRA and the state Department of Transportation are working on a grant application that could result in the rehabilitation of 30 miles of existing railroad tracks between Portland and Brunswick. The project, previously estimated at $35 million, would pave the way for two more Downeaster stops, one in Freeport and another in Brunswick. 

The extension is significant because Brunswick and Freeport have major development projects with rail components. Both towns have recently begun pressuring Baldacci to ensure that the rail upgrades – the focus of a bill passed by the state Legislature last year – come to fruition.

The governor, meanwhile, is framing the Downeaster extension as part of the state's plan to promote economic development along the corridor and to expand tourism opportunities to the Mid-Coast.

The state owns the tracks between Brunswick and Rockland. The line is currently used by Maine Eastern Railroad, a seasonal excursion service.

Also included in the regional vision is a line that would split from the Portland-Brunswick route and run through Auburn, Bethel, New Hampshire, Vermont and Montreal. The route, which would use existing rail lines, is not specifically mentioned in the four-page plan sent to LaHood, but is shown as a future project on the enclosed map. 

Baldacci and MDOT Commissioner David Cole said the unified vision through the Coalition of Northeastern Governors would help the Downeaster's chances for an extension or faster existing service.

"Working in cooperation with our neighboring states, we'll be able to harmonize operations, position ourselves for funding opportunities and define how we fit into the nation's passenger rail network," Cole said in a press release.

Patricia Quinn, the executive director of NNEPRA, said the collaborative effort would benefit the Downeaster.

"The rail network, much like the highway system, does not end at state borders," Quinn said in an email. "This regional approach will clearly strengthen not only our applications, but our projects, leading to a better, stronger transportation system to and within New England." 

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