Gathering steam

Local train proposals seek funding, find support
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 6, 2008

As flight attendants do with pin-on airline wings, TrainRiders hosts used to distribute blue “I rode the Amtrak Downeaster today” stickers to children only. These days, they try to foist the stickers on adults too, says Wayne Davis, chairman of TrainRiders Northeast, the Portland-based rail-advocacy organization that runs the volunteer train host program.

Why does he want grown-ups traipsing around with stickers on their lapels? To remind Mainers that the Downeaster, in its sixth year of service between Portland and Boston, is a train used by — and beneficial to — many people here. It’s important to issue that reminder now; a federal subsidy is set to expire in 2009. The loss of about $7 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds means the state legislature will have to find the money here, or the Downeaster will run no more. In that way, it’s a lot like state and national highways, unable to support itself without government subsidies. Options on the table include using revenue from increased car-rental taxes or charging tolls on I-295 — a less politically feasible, but perhaps more sensible, alternative.

Luckily for Davis and the other 345,745 riders aboard the Downeaster in fiscal year 2007, it is likely that the state government, despite its fiscal woes, will find the money somewhere. “There seems to be a lot of support,” says Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA). Quinn notes that state legislators and Governor John Baldacci have expressed their desire and intent to keep the Downeaster alive. They have this year to decide how to pay for it.

Despite the official support for the Downeaster, public-transit advocates have other battles ahead — and other reasons to promote passenger rail, with or without stickers.

Both the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee (PACTS) and the state’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) are considering widening I-295, hoping to ease congestion along that heavily traveled road (see "Road Works," below). But for a state intent on lowering its environmental impact, it seems like a counterintuitive solution. (Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue says he will ask the council next week to formally oppose the idea.) So NNEPRA, TrainRiders Northeast, and hundreds of eco-minded, gas-price-fearing citizens are turning their attention northward.

In 2001, when Downeaster service between Portland and Boston launched, then-governor Angus King publicly expressed an expectation that the service would be extended north to Brunswick by 2003.

It’s 2008, in case you hadn’t noticed, and with the exception of several building developments (the renovation of Brunswick’s downtown station, a multi-use development in Freeport) pegged to the new route, there’s no sign of that rail. This year, however, advocates are allowing themselves to hope for change, and for movement on the “Portland North” expansion they’ve wanted for years.

There are two major rail projects on the horizon. They are not mutually exclusive. The first is an inter-city extension of Amtrak Downeaster service from Portland through Yarmouth Junction, and up to Brunswick, along the existing PanAm rail line. (Amtrak has already negotiated with PanAm to use the tracks for such a purpose, though they would need some work to be able to handle passenger trains’ speed.) Quinn says the route could be up and running within two years. In Brunswick, the Maine Eastern Railroad continues on to Rockland; in other words, spanning the 30 miles between Portland and Brunswick could open up the entire mid-coast region to rail-borne tourists from Boston and New Hampshire.

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Related: Ride, don't drive, Planes, trains, & automobiles, Flashbacks: October 27, 2006, More more >
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