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With Portland-Brunswick rail extension set, focus switches to funding Downeaster operations

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With Portland-Brunswick rail extension set, focus switches to funding Downeaster operations

PORTLAND — After last week's receipt of a $35 million federal grant brightened the prospects for extending Amtrak Downeaster service from Portland to Brunswick within three years, state and federal officials are now trying ensure that the passenger service has the money to keep running.

Maintaining the passenger rail's $8 million operating subsidy will require a two-pronged effort, the most difficult of which will occur on Capitol Hill as lawmakers push for reauthorization of a six-year, $500 billion federal transportation bill. 

The spending plan includes money for state transportation departments. In Maine's case, it also includes an exception that would allow the state to use funds in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program to fund the Downeaster.

According to officials in the state Department of Transportation, Maine is one of just two states with the exception. The other is Oregon.

The exception is critical to the Downeaster, because CMAQ funds account for the majority of its operating budget. 

Speaking last week at Brunswick's Maine Street Station, at the formal announcement of the $35 million grant to upgrade 30 miles of track between Portland and Brunswick by the end of 2012, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said preserving the exception is a concern because of potential changes and delays in the federal transportation bill.

Funding has been temporarily reauthorized several times since it expired Sept. 30, 2009. The current reauthorization extends through Feb. 28.

According to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the state's delegation is pressing to make the CMAQ exception permanent. That effort is being spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Last week, Pingree said the $35 million grant helped strengthen the state's case for the CMAQ exception.

"It would be difficult for them to help us expand and then cut the operations funding," Pingree said. "This certainly gives us some leverage in the debate."

According to DOT Commissioner David Cole, the state would have time to seek other funding sources if CMAQ money is cut off. Cole said Monday that there's enough money to keep the Downeaster running through June if the exception ends Feb. 28. 

Cole also confirmed Monday that the state would use money in the State Transit Air Rail account to fund its portion of the Downeaster subsidy, about $1.8 million.

The STAR account is partially funded by taking a portion of car rental taxes. The mechanism was established through a law passed in 2008. Originally, its intent was to use the money to fund the Portland-Brunswick rail upgrade, but it was changed in August to allow spending on operations.

Cole said the change was required to demonstrate a dedicated funding source while applying for the $35 million upgrade money made available in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"(Using the STAR account) for operations wasn't the original intent of the law," Cole said. "But it's certainly in the spirit of the law because it helps get the train to Brunswick."

Cole was also hopeful about the continued use of CMAQ funds.

"Our argument is that it makes sense, particularly in light of the (upgrade grant)," he said. "We're not asking for more money, just to continue using what we already have."

Meanwhile, optimism reigns in Freeport and Brunswick, two communities that have long hoped for the Downeaster extension.

In Brunswick, officials claimed passenger rail service linking the town with Portland and Boston would help it recover from the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and brand Brunswick as a destination.

Passenger service to points south could also aid the Maine Street Station project, a multi-use development that has had a slow build-out because of the economy.

Freeport, meanwhile, expects the Downeaster to provide another way for shoppers and tourists to reach what a Yankee magazine reader poll this week called New England's favorite shopping town. Recently the town completed construction of the Village Station shopping mall, adjacent to a proposed train platform at Bow Street and Depot Road.

Freeport's Train Committee is expected to discuss the platform when it meets Feb. 10.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the Downeaster's administrative arm, said last week that the service will run three daily round trips between Portland and Brunswick, and two round trips between Boston and Brunswick.

The Downeaster extension could also open the door for passenger service between Brunswick and Augusta. Gordon Page, president of Maine Eastern Railroad, which runs a seasonal excursion service between Brunswick and Rockland, said in July that his passenger and freight company hoped to establish commuter service between Brunswick and the state capital after the Downeaster extension is established.  

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net