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Brunswick base agency seeks slice of Downeaster subsidy for airport operations

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Brunswick base agency seeks slice of Downeaster subsidy for airport operations

BRUNSWICK — The agency redeveloping Brunswick Naval Air Station is eyeing funds that have been used to subsidize the Amtrak Downeaster.

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority says the money is needed to operate the airport after the Navy base is decommissioned.

Steve Levesque, MRRA executive director, confirmed his group may need a slice of the $8 million the state receives from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program to create a funding mechanism for the airport.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Downeaster's administrative arm, said she does not view the development as threatening. 

Since 2001, the state has used the bulk of its CMAQ money to fund the Downeaster's operations. However, the state's revenue shortfall and inability to fund transportation projects has generated pressure in Augusta to redistribute the federal dollars.

According to Levesque, MRRA has been negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration to assume control of the base's airfield. As a condition of FAA approval, the redevelopment authority must prove that it can pay the estimated $650,000 annually needed to maintain and operate the facility.

While MRRA is seeking to sign tenants to offset those costs, Levesque on Oct. 6 told his executive committee that the FAA wants MRRA to have more financial backing from the state. 

Levesque said the authority isn't just targeting CMAQ money, but also the State Transit Aviation and Rail account, which funds non-highway transportation projects. In 2008, a law was passed that would add money to the STAR account to pay for the anticipated extension of Downeaster service north of Portland, to Freeport and Brunswick. Proponents of other potential rail projects, like the re-establishment of the Mountain Division Line, are also eyeing STAR funds. 

MRRA's emergence as a competitor for both funding sources could complicate efforts to extend the Downeaster – and to ensure the service remains operational.

But Quinn wasn't alarmed. She said the service has a memorandum of understanding with the state Department of Transportation, which distributes the CMAQ dollars, that the money would be continued to be used for the Downeaster.

"(MRRA) is probably doing what anybody in the public sector is trying to do right now, and that's look at every available funding option," Quinn said. "... I don't think there's any indication whatsoever that the service is on the chopping block."

MDOT Commissioner David Cole confirmed that the state planned to continue channeling CMAQ money to the Downeaster for at least two more years. Gov. John Baldacci has publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the service. 

Such assurances should ease concerns from the passenger rail service's advocates. However, the increasing demand for limited CMAQ funding underscores the scarcity of state transportation dollars, a dearth that could reignite old partisan tensions about Amtrak's reliance on public subsidies.

In addition, other transportation groups are lobbying for commuter rail service from Portland to places like Lewiston and Augusta. State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said he supports exploring those projects, as well as reallocating federal money for the BNAS airfield.

Gerzofsky was asked about setting priorities for the projects, given the state's current revenue shortage and increased competition for public money.

"That's a tough question," he said. "(The Downeaster) could be a tough sell (in the Legislature), but the (BNAS) airport has a lot of jobs connected to it."

"I also have a strong contingent that really wants commuter rail," Gerzofsky added. "Passenger rail and commuter rail should be able to coexist."

Quinn agreed, saying NNEPRA is in full support of other commuter projects. But, she said, the Downeaster extension to Brunswick is the next logical step.

"You need to build a successful core service before you start adding others," she said. 

Brunswick and Freeport stand to benefit from redevelopment of BNAS. MRRA hopes to take over the airport by next summer, thus allowing it to sign tenants and begin replacing the 5,000 jobs expected to be lost when the base closes.

But both towns also see the Downeaster as an economic engine linked to two downtown developments, Freeport's Village Station and Brunswick's Maine Street Station.

Brunswick in particular has significant investment, having committed more than $2 million to Maine Street Station. The project developer this summer wrote to Gov. John Baldacci to say the $23.5 million project "hangs in the balance" with the Downeaster's arrival. 

It's unclear if the base redevelopment authority's bid for STAR and CMAQ funds will adversely impact the Downeaster funding. Either way, Quinn said the Downeaster isn't competing with MRRA.

"In the end we want the same things," she said. "We want to help with the redevelopment, and we believe the Downeaster's arrival in Brunswick will do that."

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