With federal funds about to dry up, state officials, rail advocates remain optimistic about Amtrak Downeaster

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PORTLAND — The federal subsidy that keeps the Amtrak Downeaster running is scheduled to expire Sept. 30. But despite a weakened economy and gaps in state transportation funding, state officials and rail advocates are confident the Portland-to-Boston passenger service will continue. 

Officials, in fact, remain hopeful the Downeaster won’t just survive, but get faster and add stops in Freeport and Brunswick.

The optimism should buoy rail proponents, not to mention Brunswick and Freeport, two communities that have invested in development projects designed to capitalize on the extension of Downeaster service.

The growth is contingent upon a $35 million track upgrade between Portland and Brunswick. 

Although Gov. John Baldacci last year signed legislation that would fund the project, the state this summer joined a collective of New England governors angling for a slice of the $13 billion the Obama administration has made available in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act for rail projects and the creation of a high-speed system.

The funding isn’t much, considering a high-speed rail project in California is estimated to cost $40 billion, eight times the amount the president has allotted to start a system for the entire country. New England, and the Downeaster, are competing against the California project, which already has a significant investment from taxpayers. 

Nonetheless, local rail advocates believe the Downeaster is a prime candidate for stimulus funding because, unlike many of its competitors, the Portland-Brunswick extension meets the definition of “shovel-ready.” In addition, said Wayne Davis, chairman of Downeaster advocacy group TrainRiders Northeast, ridership on the Portland-to-Boston line is holding steady amid a steady decline nationally. 

“There have been dramatic drops in the national system, but not here,” Davis said, adding that Downeaster ridership fell 2 percent in July from a year ago, when ridership rose sharply in response to gas breaking the $4-a-gallon mark.

In addition to the Downeaster’s strong ridership figures and the readiness of the Brunswick extension, Davis said he believes the federal Transportation Department’s designation of the Portland-to-Boston line as a high-speed corridor will make the service even more appealing for stimulus funding. 

Still, significant questions surround the Downeaster’s $8 million operating subsidy, which is scheduled to disappear at the end of the month. Baldacci has reassured Downeaster supporters that the state has a contingency plan if lawmakers in Washington, D.C. fail to reauthorize the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program that the state Department of Transportation uses to fund the Downeaster. 

MDOT Commissioner David Cole said Monday that state officials have been in close contact with Maine’s congressional delegation to push for an extension of the CMAQ funds. Cole said that although a full reauthorization of the program isn’t likely to happen soon, he is “cautiously optimistic” Congress will pass a continuing resolution that will provide a temporary solution.

“I know this is a priority for (the delegation),” Cole said. “We’re hopeful it will happen before (Sept. 30), but as they say, it ain’t done until it’s done.”

The state matches a portion of the CMAQ funds for the Downeaster. If there are delays in a CMAQ extension, Cole said, the state DOT would fund the Downeaster by fronting that match. Doing so, Cole said, would allow the Downeaster to keep running for “a couple of months.”

Although a full reauthorization of CMAQ – or at the very least a continuing resolution – would seem to bode well for the Downeaster’s long-term plans, it remains to be seen how long the service will benefit from the federal program. MDOT distributes CMAQ funds according to the governor’s policy directives and political pressure.

Time will tell how long the Downeaster remains the primary beneficiary of the program, which can be used to fund other transportation needs, such as intersection improvements or airport operations.

Such funding is of specific importance to Brunswick and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the organization overseeing the reuse of Brunswick Naval Air Station. MRRA, which now relies on state appropriations and federal grants, will be taking over airfield operations at the base.

In addition, gaps in the state transportation budget have meant that some road projects have been delayed or unfunded. It remains to be seen if lawmakers representing those areas will pressure MDOT to reallocate CMAQ funds if the state’s financial outlook doesn’t soon improve.

Cole acknowledged that there is pressure to redistribute the CMAQ money.

“There are other demands of the CMAQ funding … but the MDOT’s biennial work plan has prioritized the project for the next two years,” he said. “It’s not all spent on the Downeaster. … We’re committed to this project. That said, there are a lot of other projects worthwhile of this funding.”

“Most train services are subsidized,” Cole added. “I don’t see that subsidy going away. … I can’t say what will happen two years from now if the state is hard-pressed for money, but right now it’s made the most sense to continue funding the Downeaster with CMAQ money.”

Cole said he hopes to receive word on the CMAQ continuation before Sept. 30. Word on the state’s application for stimulus funding is expected in October or November. 

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