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UPDATE: Work begins on Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail extension to Freeport, Brunswick

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UPDATE: Work begins on Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail extension to Freeport, Brunswick

BRUNSWICK — The northward extension of the Amtrak Downeaster has been local rail advocates' dream since 2003.

On Monday at Maine Street Station, the first tangible sign that the long-awaited vision is closer to realization was hard to miss.

The train delivering 50 strings of steel rail stretched nearly a third of a mile, its cargo weighing more than 3.2 million pounds. Once installed, the track will stretch for nearly eight miles, more than a quarter of the distance to the finish line in Portland.

On Monday, the delivery train served as backdrop for a ceremony marking the start of work on the $38 million track rehabilitation project that will re-establish passenger service in Freeport and Brunswick via the Downeaster.

"This is an awesome train to launch an awesome project," said Martin Eisenstein, chairman of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the administrative arm of the Downeaster.

In January, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that the 30-mile renovation project had won a $35 million grant made available in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The project was one of dozens nationwide competing for $8 billion in high-speed rail funding, the Obama Administration's so-called "down payment" on upgrading the national rail network. 

The state will provide another $3 million to complete the project.

On Monday, FRA AdministratorJoseph Szabo said the project was one of the first ARRA projects to put "rail in the ground" because Maine was quick to see the benefits of re-establishing the nation's rail system.

"Maine sets the example for the other states," Szabo said.

"FRA advanced this application to fast-track status because of its readiness. The (Obama Administration) is proud to work with a state government that is as committed to rail as we are, " he added.

Scheduled for completion in the fall of 2012, the track rehab is expected to allow the Downeaster to add two daily round trips to Freeport and Brunswick to its current Portland-Boston service.

The project will upgrade 36 highway crossings and wayside signals along the Pan Am Railways-owned line running from the Portland Transportation Center to Brunswick. Pan Am will be doing the majority of the work.

Officials said the project will employ more than 200 workers for the next two years.

Officials have also touted the project's potential to spur economic development. The two additional stops will link Brunswick and Freeport to Portland and Boston. Both towns also have new development projects with rail components, Maine Street Station in Brunswick and Village Station in Freeport.

The Brunswick project, which the town has helped subsidize, has endured some growing pains. However, town officials say the Downeaster's arrival could expedite Maine Street Station's buildout, help the town's recovery from the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and make Brunswick a tourist destination.

On Monday, Town Councilor Margo Knight compared the project's struggles with the traffic delays caused by delivery of the rails.

"A little pain usually accompanies progress," Knight said.

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.

Gov. John Baldacci said the extension project would also set the stage for additional expansion of passenger and freight rail service.

"It gets more cars and trucks off our roads, reducing congestion and keeping the environment in this beautiful area clean," Baldacci said. "It will further encourage development in this region and stimulate jobs and investments. And working with all our partners, we will reach Brunswick and open the gateway for further expansion."

Work on the project comes amid a record-breaking year for the Downeaster, which has carried more than 3 million passengers since 2001. Fiscal 2009 had been the service's best year for ridership and revenues. However, after ridership dipped the first five months of fiscal 2010, the numbers rebounded to post the best year ever: more than 474,000 riders and $6.7 million in revenues.

The Downeaster receives an annual public subsidy of about $8 million, the majority of which is allocated to the state Department of Transportation through the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.

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

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