BRUNSWICK — Maine Eastern Railroad has been flying under the radar while the proposed extension of the Amtrak Downeaster to Brunswick, and the operational funding for the passenger service, has held the attention of local officials and advocates of rail and alternative transportation for some time.
But now, the privately operated freight and passenger service is hatching plans that it believes will make significant contributions to the local economy and transit picture.
Gordon Page, vice president and director of operations for the Rockland-based company, said this week that Maine Eastern has been negotiating with the Brunswick Naval Air Station redevelopment authority to build a repair facility following the base’s 2011 closure.
Page also confirmed plans to establish passenger service from Brunswick to Augusta, a project that could one day supplement Maine Eastern’s current Brunswick-Rockland seasonal excursion service with year-round, commuter-oriented trains to the state capital.
Page said the BNAS operation would focus on the manufacturing and overhaul of rail cars and locomotives, leading to the immediate creation of 20 jobs, a number he said would “grow quickly” thereafter.
Maine Eastern has met with officials from the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority to discuss the proposal, including at least one closed-door session with the authority this spring.
“I think the number of conversations has been satisfactory,” Page said. “They’ve been frank, cordial and productive.”
Page said Maine Eastern originally saw opportunities at one of the base’s existing hangers, but determined those buildings would be too large for the company’s plans. He said a facility at the base would probably involve new construction.
The proposal also relies on the re-establishment of a rail spur into the base, a project endorsed by the master reuse plan, but one put in flux by evolving plans to increase access to the facility and existing traffic congestion.
The base’s old rail spur currently runs through Merrymeeting Plaza and crosses Bath Road. Jeffrey Jordan, MRRA’s deputy director, said recreating that crossing could be problematic because it might cause traffic backups on Bath Road. Jordan said one alternative is building a bridge that would allow rail cars to cross under the street.
Such discussions will be the subject of an Aug. 6 public meeting hosted by the MRRA, the Maine Department of Transportation and other stakeholders to discuss transportation issues created by base redevelopment. The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Brunswick Junior High School.
Page cautioned against characterizing Maine Eastern’s base proposal as a sure thing. He added that another Brunswick site had potential to house the repair and overhaul facility if Maine Eastern and MRRA failed to reach an agreement.
Page said Maine Eastern sees opportunities in Brunswick because it’s at “the center of a railroad web,” with existing lines branching to Rockland, Augusta, Lisbon and south toward Portland.
Page envisions increased freight train activity on those lines, which he said is necessary to subsidize any privately run passenger service. Page said that formula has been used to fund Maine Eastern Railroad’s Brunswick-Rockland seasonal service. He said Maine Eastern ran more than 2,600 freight cars in 2008.
“Maine Eastern Railroad’s goal is to generate profit,” Page said. “It’s difficult to make a profit just on passenger service.”
While ridership has increased for the Downeaster, the service is heavily reliant on state and federal subsidies for operations. The latter has been an constant issue for the service – and Amtrak in general – but now in particular. For the first time since the Downeaster service started, the state’s recently adopted budget excludes funding for operations.
In addition, the Downeaster awaits the extension of funding from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality improvement program. CMAQ funds are expected to dry up Sept. 30.
Both the Downeaster and Maine Eastern Railroad hope the state will be successful in securing the estimated $35 million needed to repair tracks between Portland and Brunswick. The project is necessary to allow passenger service and increase travel speeds for freight.
Page said the rehabilitation project, and anticipated extension of the Downeaster, is requisite to Maine Eastern’s ability to establish passenger service to Augusta.
For that reason, he said, Maine Eastern is “100 percent behind the extension of the Downeaster.”
But given the uncertainty of Downeaster’s operations, Page was asked if Maine Eastern could run passenger service between Brunswick and Portland. It could, he said, but only if the track rehabilitation project is successful.
“If the Downeaster couldn’t travel to Brunswick we have ability to do that,” Page said. “But it’s important to realize we’re not competing against them. … Ultimately, we think the best answer is to have the Downeaster in Brunswick. But it’s not the only answer.”
That may hearten officials in Brunswick and Freeport. Both towns have new development projects with rail components, and have subsequently joined the lobbying effort to establish Portland-Brunswick passenger service.
Brunswick has a particular interest in the service, having committed more than $3 million to the development of the $23.5 million Maine Street Station project, including more than $220,000 to become the master tenant of the development’s train station. The developer, meanwhile, has said the Downeaster is vital to the success of the project.
Page, meanwhile, expressed some disappointment that Maine Eastern’s presence in Brunswick and its future importance was overshadowed by news about the Downeaster’s uncertainty.
“We continue to read in press accounts that people are worried that the train isn’t coming,” Page said. “We get frustrated that people don’t realize Brunswick already has freight and passenger service. The Downeaster will only enhance the value of service that already exists.”
Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org