BRUNSWICK — Nationally, the debate over subsidizing passenger rail has largely been a partisan issue; Democrats have supported it, Republicans haven’t. For the most part, that division hasn’t been evident in Maine.
With a new Republican governor and GOP-controlled state Legislature, supporters of the Amtrak Downeaster and passenger rail advocates are hoping for the status quo.
However, with the state facing an estimated $850 million budget gap and a projected $2.6 billion shortfall in transportation funding over the next decade, it remains to be seen how Gov. Paul LePage and the new Republican majority will fund the service, particularly after running campaigns decrying the conditions of the state’s roads and bridges.
Re-established in 2001 after a citizen-initiated petition signed by more than 90,000 residents, the Downeaster now runs between Portland and Boston. The service is generally lauded nationally and locally as a success story. It has recently claimed steady ridership gains and is tops in the country at covering its own operation costs.
The success comes with a price: The service runs on about $9.5 million in annual public subsidies. About $8 million comes from the federal government through a rare exception in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program that allows Maine to divert transportation money earmarked for capital projects, such as roads, bridges and ports, to the Downeaster for operations.
The service also receives about $1.5 million from the state’s car rental tax.
It’s unclear if LePage and Republican lawmakers plan to continue using the same funding formula for Downeaster, given that the money could be redistributed to transportation projects more in line with traditional GOP values.
Dan Demeritt, LePage’s press secretary, said recently that the new administration hasn’t reviewed a specific policy for funding the Downeaster.
“Passenger rail service in Maine and the Downeaster will be considered as part of budget deliberations and in general transportation policy discussions in the coming weeks,” Demeritt said. “Until we have had a chance to take a hard look at the numbers, I cannot offer insights into how passenger rail fits on the governor-elect’s list of priorities.”
Rail advocates like Wayne Davis, executive director of Trainriders Northeast, hope LePage will be as receptive to the Downeaster as his predecessors, Gov. John Baldacci and Gov. Angus King. Davis said that some members in his organization are anxious to hear the governor-elect’s views.
“There’s the worry that everybody has,” Davis said. “We haven’t had a Republican governor and (Legislature) at the same time in 40 years. … (Passenger rail) tends to polarize people politically; it certainly has in Washington over the years.”
Davis referred to traditional partisan battles over passenger rail subsidies. Republicans often claim passenger rail ridership doesn’t justify the taxpayer investment. Democrats, meanwhile, counter that the United States is far behind Europe and China in passenger rail development and that rail subsidies are no different than those for roads and airports.
The debate has intensified since the Obama administration last year made available $8 billion to states pursuing high-speed rail projects.
Last summer, Maine and the Downeaster became one of the first recipients of the federal money, receiving $35 million for northward expansion to Freeport and Brunswick. Earlier this month, the project received an additional $3.3 million after the Obama administration yanked $1.2 billion in funding from Ohio and Wisconsin, two states where newly elected Republican governors campaigned against spending on rail projects.
In both cases, the Republican governors wanted to divert the rail money to other transportation projects. The administration declined and immediately diverted the funds to Maine and 11 other states.
Although Maine appears to have benefited from the additional funding, the manner in which it came underscored the political nature of passenger rail subsidies.
Augusta Republicans have yet to make political hay over the Downeaster’s funding. Davis is hopeful they never will.
“I personally have spent 23 years trying to emphasize that this is not a Republican train, or a Democratic train,” Davis said. “This is an us train, a Maine train for Maine people. Gov. King named it the people’s train, and that’s why he was in favor of it.”
Patricia Quinn, director of the Northern New England Passenger Authority, the administrative arm of the Downeaster, agreed. She was also quick to cite the Downeaster’s economic impact, which has been evident in several development projects, including Maine Street Station in Brunswick.
A 2008 study by the Maine Department of Transportation projected the Freeport-Brunswick extension will generate about $70 million in tax revenues over the next 20 years.
“It (the Downeaster) began as a citizens initiative and it’s been so well received that I have no reason to believe that there’s going to be any major change in how we do business,” Quinn said. “I think the service has certainly proved that it’s been an economic generator for the state.”
Quinn acknowledged that Republicans elsewhere have been hostile to passenger rail. However, she noted that the projects rejected by new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio weren’t nearly as established as the Downeaster or its proposed expansion.
Quinn said workers have already installed more than 20 miles of new track for the 31-mile extension. She said $28 million of the $38.3 million has been committed to the project, which is set for a fall 2012 completion.
Additionally, Quinn said, Maine’s congressional delegation has supported the Downeaster.
Maine is one of a handful of states allowed to use its federal funding for passenger rail operations instead of capital projects, and Republican U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have both pushed to make the exception permanent in the next federal transportation bill.
“In view of the Downeaster’s success, as emphasized by the expansion project currently under way, Sen. Snowe will continue to press for maximum common-sense flexibility in using federal transportation dollars,” said Kathryn Bruns, a spokeswoman for Snowe.
Of course, such flexibility does not guarantee that federal dollars will continue to go to the Downeaster. That decision will be up to LePage and the Republicans now in control in Augusta.
Davis admitted he was anxious to learn how they’ll view funding the service. Although LePage to this point is mum on the issue, Davis said he was heartened by remarks the incoming governor made on the campaign trail.
“He was quoted quite frequently as saying he wanted a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” Davis said. “I took comfort in that because this train was certainly an example of people power. It was 90,000 taxpayers that said do it and don’t spend less than $40 million to do it. It was started by a Democratic senator and a Republican senator.
“We represent an awful lot of people, not just the original 90,000 that signed the petition,” he added. “To a certain extent, we represent some of the 4 million people that have ridden the train and love it.”
Steve Mistler is the Statehouse reporter for the Sun Journal in Lewiston. He can be reached at email@example.com.