PORTLAND — Under Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed state budget, funding for the Amtrak Downeaster may hinge on the federal government’s willingness to broaden the use of transportation dollars for rail operations.
That’s because Baldacci’s $6.1 billion biennial spending plan does not include operations funding for the Downeaster, a service that has reported steady gains in ridership while planning expansion to Freeport and Brunswick.
State funding for the Downeaster has been in doubt for months, but the national economic crisis and the state budget gap mean the money to keep the service running will have to come from somewhere other than Augusta.
“The governor fully supports the Downeaster and its model as a regional transportation provider,” Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, David Farmer, said. “But given budget conditions and the recession, we’re not able to provide its estimated $8 million operation subsidy. … We’re seeking a federal solution.”
Securing federal funding for rail service has historically been difficult. But Farmer said the governor is hopeful President Barack Obama and the new Congress would buck the trend.
The Downeaster subsidy has typically come through an annual allocation from the Maine Department of Transportation, which in turn receives money from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.
CMAQ dollars account for 80 percent of the Downeaster’s operational budget. The remainder comes from a state grant program.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said the 20 percent state allocation is separate from Baldacci’s proposed budget. She added that NNEPRA is discussing the future of the grant program with MDOT.
Meanwhile, Farmer said Baldacci is hoping the state’s congressional delegation will pressure lawmakers to extend the federal CMAQ funding. While the delegation members have publicly expressed support for the Downeaster, it’s unclear if they’ll support extending CMAQ funding.
Willy Ritch, spokesman for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the freshmen congresswoman is a strong supporter of the Downeaster.
“(Pingree) believes in mass transit and that passenger rail is an important part of the transportation infrastructure,” Ritch
said. “Part of her long-term vision is to support passenger rail.”
Other members of the congressional delegation did not provide comment before press time. Farmer said Baldacci would contact the delegation to generate support.
CMAQ money was used to get the Downeaster service started and carried it through several years of operation. However, those funds are expected to dry up Sept. 30. Baldacci and Downeaster advocates hope to extend the deadline.
In order for CMAQ funding to continue, Downeaster supporters and national rail lobbyists will have to influence several congressional committees, including Appropriations and Transportation and Infrastructure.
In previous years, that would be a daunting prospect.
“Passenger rail has always been the stepchild of transportation funding,” Quinn said. “Amtrak has been in this position several times before.”
“It’s a concern,” Quinn added. “I don’t like the uncertainty. But until passenger rail is identified and accepted nationally as a permanent and viable transportation option, we can expect to be in this position.”
Despite having its future ride on a new administration and Congress – and the hope both will honor pre-election promises to improve the country’s aging rail infrastructure – Quinn said the absence of state support isn’t a threat to the continuation of the Downeaster service.
“I think (Baldacci) had a tough job in trying to meet all the needs of the state,” Quinn said. “He sees the Downeaster as being a successful, regional transportation provider. … Ultimately this could be a good opportunity to restore the federal (funding).”
Those prospects could benefit from a national rise in passenger rail awareness and support. In October, that shift was apparent when President George W. Bush signed a bill that effectively doubled funding for Amtrak and its Downeaster subsidiary.
The measure provides $13 billion for Amtrak and passenger rail for five years, temporarily ending Amtrak’s stopgap funding for the first time since 1997. The bill received 74-24 approval in the U.S. Senate, a veto-proof majority.
Baldacci and Downeaster supporters are counting on a similar outcome for CMAQ funding.
“We’re hoping that with new interests in national infrastructure, a new administration and Congress will see the importance of extending the (CMAQ) program,” Farmer said.
Quinn said the absence of state money should have no impact on a $30 million plan for rail improvements between Portland and Brunswick, which the Legislature approved last year.
That may provide some comfort to Freeport and Brunswick, both of which are undertaking large development projects – Village Station and Maine Street Station – that revolve around the expansion of Downeaster service.
Both projects would undoubtedly suffer if the Downeaster stops running.
According to Farmer, Baldacci – who lauded the Downeaster as facilitating economic development during a groundbreaking ceremony at Brunswick’s $23 million Maine Street Station – is committed to keeping the service running.
“If the (CMAQ) funding is unsuccessful, we’ll pursue other options,” said Farmer, who declined to elaborate.