BRUNSWICK — The executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority said Friday that she looks forward to meeting with six Democratic legislators to discuss their concerns about a proposed 60,000-square-foot layover facility in Brunswick.
In a letter June 18 letter to NNEPRA’s Patricia Quinn, Sen. Edward Mazurek of Rockland and Reps. Michael Shaw of Standish, Ken Theriault of Madawaska, Wayne Werts of Auburn, Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston and Christine Powers of Naples asked the authority to cancel the Brunswick project and focus its efforts on upgrading its “‘core’ product: the Portland-to-Boston route.”
In an interview Friday, Quinn said she responded by asking the legislators to schedule a meeting to discuss short- and long-term plans for the Downeaster service.
“It appears there is not a good understanding of what that is,” Quinn said, adding she was “anxious” to sit down with lawmakers and “clarify any misunderstandings there might be and have a good discussion about what the options really are.”
She said she received a response Thursday, July 10, from a legislative aide to set up a meeting.
The layover facility as proposed would allow trains to idle during the day and power down overnight in Brunswick instead of returning to Portland late at night, only to arrive early the next day to pick up more southbound passengers, Quinn has said. The building also is designed to reduce noise and pollution by allowing trains to power down during the day.
The legislators urged the agency to reconsider building a layover facility at Rigby Yard in South Portland, which they labeled “a more logical hub.”
On Friday, Quinn maintained that building the layover facility in Brunswick, the terminus of the line, would provide more efficient service and allow for expansion in the future.
“One piece builds upon another,” Quinn said. “Nothing that we’re doing, nothing that we plan to do, precludes any additional expansion. … What we’re trying to do is anticipate the need and viability of expanded service around the state and strengthen the core around Brunswick to Boston so it can support that.”
The project has been mired in debate since before Amtrak restored passenger rail service to Brunswick in November 2012, and neighbors of the proposed site continue to object to its scale and what they argue would be negative impacts on quality of life and property values.
In their letter, the legislators suggested, among other improvements, upgrading tracks in Saco, Wells and a 30-mile section of rail between Dover and Plaistow, New Hampshire, where trains cannot pass each other.
“We agree that the Brunswick expansion is valuable, but we question the concentration of resources on the current line above Portland,” the legislators said. “The current schedule provides passengers from Freeport, Brunswick and Boston morning departures and evening returns. The ridership numbers are much more robust south of Portland.”
The Brunswick layover facility “in no way changes or minimizes or distracts from the work that needs to be done between Portland and Boston,” Quinn responded, but acknowledged that improvements are needed on tracks south of Portland to allow for more frequent service on the line.
The agency plans to add more tracks and a second platform in Portland, but is awaiting funding to move forward with the project, Quinn said.
“It’s really separate issue from the siting of the layover facility,” she added.
Werts, Mazurek, Powers and Theriault are members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Werts said Thursday that the site has been discussed by the committee, as well as other groups in the state, including an informal Androscoggin-Oxford-Coos County Rail Committee that meets monthly to talk about progress in extending rail lines in that direction.
“One of the concerns is the feeling that the layover facility being built in Brunswick would somehow circumvent rail moving up to Lewiston-Auburn, New Hampshire, Montreal and Vermont,” Werts said Thursday. “Every town on this corridor – Auburn, Lewiston, Bethel (and) Guilford, (New Hampshire) – has already signed on and said they want passenger rail through their territory. Bethel has already invested $4 million. They’re just waiting for the train.”
Shaw, who is a conductor on the Downeaster, said Thursday that after “a tough winter,” the tracks between Portland and Massachusetts could use attention.
“We’ve had problems down there pretty much ever since, because trains are running late a lot, but even before that,” he said Thursday.
“A lot of it is just one track,” he said, which makes running two trains in different directions problematic.
Shaw also noted that if passenger rail is extended to Lewiston-Auburn, a Brunswick facility would be 30 miles from those trains.
“I’ve been perplexed by the choice of Brunswick from the beginning,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of our riders are riding from Portland to Boston.”
Quinn responded that extending service north from Portland is part of NNEPRA’s “strategic objective.”
“How and when that would happen has yet to be determined because the costs are quite extraordinary,” she said.
Moving the layover facility out of Portland to the end of the line “really compliments” long term plans to expand service to Lewiston-Auburn and possibly Montreal, she stated.
The NNEPRA board’s position is that before moving forward with expansion, it needs to make sure its “core” service can be self-sustaining, Quinn said.
Brunswick Rep. Matthea Daughtrey said she was not contacted about the letter, although she has spoken to the House members who signed the letter and does share their concerns. But she was quick to add that the Portland-to-Brunswick line should be a focus of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s.
Referring to a recent court decision to vacate a stormwater management permit for the Brunswick facility because abutters weren’t notified, Daughtry said she’s been troubled by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority process.
“NNEPRA needs to be realistic,” she said. “We all want to see the railroad succeed. We want it to be the best it can be, but we need to be in this as a team.”
In a release Thursday, members of a Brunswick neighbors’ group that opposes the Brunswick site, said the letter, following on the heels of a March request by Gov. Paul LePage for a review of the proposed location, “indicates growing bipartisan concern” about the location.
Bob Morrison, chairman of Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, said in the release that the legislators asked “common-sense questions” that members of the coalition have asked previously “but (that) have been ignored.”
“We have always said we’re not against passenger rail service in Maine,” Morrison said. “We just don’t understand the reasoning behind the location of the Brunswick facility, from safety, environmental, financial or operational standpoint.”