Feds snub Maine train operator's request for $20M

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PORTLAND — Operators of the Amtrak Downeaster must look elsewhere for $20 million to fund projects associated with its northbound expansion to Brunswick.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority applied in October for federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants to help fund three projects, totalling $25 million.

But when the grants were announced last week, NNEPRA’s proposal was not among the 46 transportation projects to receive funding.

NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said the group must now seek funding from other sources and re-prioritize the projects it had hoped to fund.

Quinn, however, said she has not yet spoken with the Maine Department of Transportation or the NNEPRA Board of Directors about other potential funding sources or priorities, since the grants were announced on Dec. 15.

“We need to see what other options are,” Quinn said. “We knew it was a very competitive grant program. We were hopeful and optimistic. I think we put together a solid application.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation received 848 applications from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Nearly $14.3 billion was requested, but only $511 million was available.

Quinn said the failure to secure funding through the TIGER program will not affect the time line for getting the northbound service to Brunswick online by next fall, when two round trips will run daily.

NNEPRA was seeking nearly $9 million to build a new track in Portland that would trim about 10 minutes from the northbound service by not requiring trains to back up and change directions before heading north.

NNEPRA said the additional 10 minutes could be enough to cause riders not to take the train to Brunswick, since a 50-minute ride would not be competitive with the 35-minute drive time. 

The authority’s TIGER application highlighted the potential for a new, multi-modal transportation facility near the planned development of a sports arena, convention center, offices and restaurants at Thomspon’s Point.

NNEPRA also sought $9 million to build a layover facility in Brunswick that would allow the authority to service passenger trains indoors, rather than traveling to Portland – without passengers – for servicing.

The rail authority originally planned to build a 40,000-square-foot layover facility, but increased the size to 60,000 square feet to address concerns from neighbors.

But the concession pushed the plan over budget, forcing the authority to seek the TIGER grant.

Quinn said this week NNEPRA plans to move forward with the layover facility. She said the facility is still being designed, so it’s too soon to say how big the final building will be.

“That is still an ongoing process and that process will continue,” she said.

NNEPRA also sought funding for a $7 million project that would have added additional tracks at Royal Junction, which would allow two trains to pass without slowing down or stopping.

“We felt and still feel all three of them are good projects,” she said.

Quinn noted that Massachusetts received $10 million in TIGER grants for repairs to the Merrimack River Bridge, which would improve service to Boston.

Only one project in Maine was selected for funding: $10.8 million for the $24.9 million replacement of the Kennebec Bridge.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings