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Downeaster faces uphill battle as Maine rail projects vie for funding

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Downeaster faces uphill battle as Maine rail projects vie for funding

PORTLAND — Patricia Quinn knows exactly how to bring the Amtrak Downeaster to Brunswick – and how to make sure the state continues paying its share of the passenger rail service's cost.

The trouble is, Quinn, the executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, might have different priorities than state lawmakers who are influencing where federal stimulus money and funding provided in a law passed by the state Legislature last year is directed.

The new law takes a portion of the state's rental car usage tax and puts it into an account for rail projects. It  was pushed by advocates hoping to rehabilitate railroad tracks between Portland and Brunswick, a $35 million project. NNEPRA, which runs the Downeaster, was among the main proponents because renovating the tracks would allow passenger train service to be extended to Brunswick.

Freeport and Brunswick have interests, too. Freeport's $30 million Village Station project hopes to benefit from business generated by the Downeaster, and so does Brunswick's $23 million Maine Street Station, which has plans for a 2,100-square-foot train station. 

But the Portland-Brunswick rehabilitation has since been complicated by another rail project, a $19 million plan to reestablish freight service along the so-called Mountain Division Rail Line between Portland and Fryeburg. The project is being championed by state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations & Financial Affairs Committee. 

Diamond said the two projects "don't need to be competing," but he's quick to point out Amtrak's repeated need for state and federal subsidies to cover operating expenses – a sore spot for the service's advocates and an easy target for its opponents.

"The Downeaster is always at the center of the discussion about rail service," Diamond said. "But instead of just talking about north-south rail service, we should also be talking about east-west."

Quinn, meanwhile, has been lobbying to attract potential stimulus dollars set aside for rail projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. She's also working to ensure that the state continues to fund 20 percent of Downeaster's operating subsidy.

Eighty percent of the Downeaster's operating expenses are funded by the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. CMAQ is slated to end Sept. 30.

While the Obama administration's support for rail seems to bode well for the continuation of the Downeaster's federal funding, budget constraints and the economy make its local allocation uncertain. Gov. John Baldacci has expressed support for the service, but he did not include the Downeaster's state subsidy in his proposed $6.1 billion biennial spending plan.

That's why Quinn said she supports using stimulus funds for the Portland-Brunswick track rehabilitation. In addition, she's advocating using the State Transit Air Rail account – which is funded by the new state law – for the state's Downeaster subsidy.

"(The Portland-Brunswick extension) is a great stimulus project," Quinn said. "It does everything the act is set to accomplish, which is to create jobs and reinvigorate the economy. But I don't set policy; I don't get to make that decision."

And the ones who do may have other plans for money that in July will begin pumping into the state's air and rail account. If it were up to Diamond, the Mountain Division Line would be in those plans.

Last year the state used funds from transportation bonds to buy the remaining 5.2
miles of the line. Diamond said the state eventually plans to lease the tracks to private users.

Maine also has political capital invested in the Mountain line, or more specifically, freight service that would use the line.

According to state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, one of the primary reasons the rail funding law passed last year was because northern and western lawmakers were sold on the legislation's ability to revitalize freight service, not just passenger service.

"There were a lot of people beating up on Amtrak during the debate last year," said Gerzofsky, adding that many northern lawmakers remain unconvinced that funding the passenger service is in the state's best interest. 

Those same lawmakers, he said, are also displeased that Maine is the only state contributing to the Downeaster's operating subsidy. 

"New Hampshire isn't giving a penny and neither is Massachusetts," Gerzofsky said. "That's an issue."

Gerzofsky agrees with Quinn that stimulus funds should be used for the Portland-Brunswick rehabilitation. But he's not convinced that using the new state law to contribute to the Downeaster operations will garner much support – or that it's even allowed.

Gerzofsky's position is causing some concern locally. Last week rumors surfaced that Gerzofsky, who is leading the Legislature's rail caucus, had been horse-trading with Diamond about how to use the transit fund. 

Gerzofsky denied the rumors. "There ain't no secret deals," he said.

He added that any overtures to Diamond were made only to gain his future support for Portland-Brunswick track rehabilitation. 

"(The Mountain Division Line) isn't even shovel-ready," Gerzofsky said. "All I told (Diamond) is that when he needs that help, I'll support him. That's the way coalitions work ... at some point we're going to need these people."

Meanwhile, Diamond said, Baldacci is working on a rail plan to distribute stimulus and STAR account funds.

"I think we're going to see a plan that includes financial assistance for both projects," Diamond said. "I think there's room for both."

While Quinn has a definite preference, she said she's not closing any doors.

"All things considered, I'm pretty optimistic about the whole project because it is a good project;" she said. "I think it will work out."

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