News analysis: Amid national interest in high-speed rail, Downeaster faces loss of steam

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PORTLAND — When governors and transportation officials from 23 states traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to discuss high-speed rail development with Obama Administration officials, Mainers were conspicuously absent.

At stake, ostensibly, was a share of the $13 billion the administration is planning to distribute for redevelopment of the country’s passenger rail system.

The June 2 summit was billed as an opportunity for states to share their ambitions, and potentially, to lobby for funding the administration will make available to create a “world-class passenger rail system.” It followed President Barack Obama’s April announcement that he was allocating $5 billion in his proposed budget for high-speed rail development, a commitment many rail advocates lauded as a historic rebirth for the industry.

The states that attended seemed to agree. According various news reports, some viewed the meeting as an opportunity to promote rail projects already underway. Others presented future projects.

The competition for the federal money is expected to be fierce, which could explain why governors from eight states, including Massachusetts, appeared in person. Other states, like New Hampshire and Rhode Island, sent representatives from their transportation departments.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci was not among the eight governors who participated in the meeting, nor did he send a cabinet member or representative from the state Department of Transportation. It was a curious absence, especially given the attendance of New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Both of those states, along with Maine, share stops on the Amtrak Downeaster’s Portland-to-Boston line, previously identified by federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as one of three New England corridors – and one of 10 nationally – eligible for high-speed seed money.

Neither New Hampshire or Massachusetts contribute to the Downeaster’s $8 million operating subsidy, which since the service’s inception has been shouldered by Maine and the federal government.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts have recently expressed interest in rail projects other than the Downeaster, but both have benefited from the Downeaster’s operation. The University of New Hampshire is one of the Downeaster’s best customers, and last year the school – and by extension the state – spent $900,000 upgrading its train station. The Downeaster alters its summer schedule to accommodate Boston Red Sox fans, a practice that presumably boosts ridership for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

But Maine has the largest stake in the Downeaster. Taxpayers fund 20 percent of its operations. Saco this year opened a $2.2 million train station for Downeaster riders. Two other communities, Brunswick and Freeport, have commercial developments that expect to benefit from the service’s expansion.

Despite the Portland-Boston line’s lag in high-speed planning, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the Downeaster, says upgrades could help make the
passenger service faster, more competitive with the automobile, and
possibly, more profitable.

Those goals would seem to make Maine’s investment easier to justify.

According to David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, the governor did not attend on June 2 because of “issues pending in the Legislature.” Farmer said the Obama Administration’s initial invitation was only to governors, which is why a cabinet member or MDOT official was not sent.

Farmer added that Baldacci has spoken directly to Vice President Joe Biden and LaHood about Maine’s passenger rail interests. In the meantime, the Downeaster could lose its federal and state subsidy by Sept. 30.

It’s unclear if the state’s absence indicates new policy priorities or a simple oversight. Despite the White House’s commitment to rail, a shift in local initiatives can’t be dismissed, especially given the economic climate and the status of the ultimate barometer in the public’ interest for alternative transportation: The price of gas.

Last year, when gas approached $5 per gallon, Downeaster ridership
soared. The service also enjoyed widespread support from local lawmakers, as many signed onto a rail improvement bill with the idea of
expanding the service to Brunswick.

Those factors prompted the Legislature and Baldacci to ratify a bill to fund state rail improvements, which could be used for a $35 million project to upgrade tracks between Portland and Brunswick. The extension is expected to benefit Freeport’s Village Station and Brunswick’s Maine Street Station.

Speaking during the Maine Street Station groundbreaking last October, Baldacci touted the Downeaster as an economic development engine for the region and potentially a viable transportation alternative.

Baldacci’s administration officials have since repeated the governor’s commitment to rail and the Downeaster. But this year, the governor excluded the service’s operations subsidy from his budget. When the governor initially unveiled the state spending plan, officials in his administration sought to ease rail advocates’ concerns by vowing to pursue federal alternatives to fund the Downeaster’s budget.

The Brunswick extension, and the Downeaster’s future, have become increasingly murky ever since.

Another rail project, the so-called Mountain Division Line, has emerged to compete for funding available in the state’s rail improvement legislation. Also, while federal stimulus money could be available for the Portland-Brunswick project, one-time stimulus funding won’t sustain the Downeaster’s operations for long.

One state lawmaker, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, has floated altering the state’s rail improvement law to include operational funding. However, Gerzofsky worries about the support of northern and western lawmakers, some of whom voted for the bill because it would upgrade rail for freight service, not just the Downeaster.

There are also concerns that Republican lawmakers, some already opposed to the state’s subsidizing of the Downeaster, are discussing redistributing the Downeaster’s federal allocation to help fill a gap in the state’s transportation budget. If that happens, state dollars will likely go to road projects, not rail.

It’s unclear if a failure of the gas tax hike will further darken the Downeaster’s future, but it underscores the challenges facing changes to transportation policy, even in the hands of supportive leadership.

A drift from publicly funded rail makes political sense, particularly when state lawmakers just slashed $500 million in state spending. It’s even easier to let gas prices dictate transportation policy during an economic crisis.

Of course, it’s impossible to determine a tangible value of the rail conference – lobbying opportunity, or photo opportunity?

Even Obama’s high-speed rail initiative has been criticized as window dressing. California’s high-speed rail project is estimated at $40 billion, eight times the amount the president has allotted to start a system for the entire country.

But even if Obama’s plan is overladen with aesthetics, it puts real dollars behind rhetoric.

Baldacci has vowed to do the same, if not from state coffers, then from the feds.

Rail advocates can only hope his absence from the Washington rail conference didn’t hurt the governor’s chances to follow through.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or; Follow Steve Mistler at