Portland seeks more input on new Amtrak station

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PORTLAND — The Transportation Committee wants the city to assert itself when it comes to planning the future of passenger rail service.

But before that can happen, policy makers must develop a uniform vision to guide land use decisions.

The new effort comes at a time where the operators of the Amtrak Downeaster are commissioning a study that could lead to a new passenger train station near the Casco Bay Bridge on the western waterfront.

Evaluating the functionality of the Downeaster’s existing station near Thompson’s Point and exploring a possible move to a two-track, center-platform West Commercial Street station are part of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s plans for extending Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick.

Last week, the executive director of the rail authority updated the Transportation Committee on the project. The goal is to increase ridership, while addressing challenges to establishing northbound service, not only to Brunswick’s Main Street Station, but also for rail service to the Auburn area.

But members of the committee – three city councilors – said NNEPRA’s presentation lacked specifics and did not leave them with the impression they would have a seat at the table.

Committee Chairman Kevin Donoghue on Monday said the presentation seemed more like a sales pitch than an informational meeting with a vested stakeholder.

“It became clear we need to develop and assert our interests as a city and as a land use regulator,” he said

A one-page staff summary of the planning effort was the only public document provided prior to the meeting.

But NNEPRA defined the project scope and idea of a West Commercial Street train station last March, and recently issued a detailed request for qualifications, or an RFQ, to prospective consultants who would lead the planning study.

According to the RFQ, the planning study, funded by a $750,000 planning grant, is scheduled to conclude in December. The consultant would complete the Portland train station portion of the study by November.

The RFQ calls for architectural renderings, a “high-level capital budget” and an analysis of each option’s projected impact on passenger demand and the local  economy.

NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn on Monday said the councilors did not receive the detailed information they wanted last week because a consultant has not been hired.

Quinn said the authority will likely take the next month to go through the more than half-dozen proposals received by the Feb. 18 deadline. Once a consultant is chosen, a formal process will be established, she said.

Quinn said the city will have a seat at the table, but said “the table hasn’t even been built yet.” She also welcomed the city’s involvement throughout the planning process, and said she stated that desire several times at last week’s meeting – so she was surprised the city councilors left that meeting with a different impression.

“I think I made it very clear that anything we did would have to be with the full input and support of the city, because we wouldn’t be able to move forward without doing that,” Quinn said.

While Donoghue originally said it didn’t seem like NNEPRA intended to invite elected officials into the process, he said his impression changed after he spoke with Quinn on Monday.

Councilor David Marshall acknowledged that city has not been aggressive in asserting its interests or vision for future rail service in the city, and said it was “high time” to do so.

Marshall said elected officials are the ones most closely tied to the interests of residents and should be in the driver’s seat of the planning process, especially a potential train station on the waterfront.

“The Transportation Committee is looking for a really robust public process,” Marshall said. “There’s a lot of stakeholders here that need to be heard by the city as we take a position on whether this is the appropriate location for a train station.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net