This article was corrected at 10 a.m. Tuesday to remove erroneous reference to improvements shortening the trip between Portland and Boston.
PORTLAND — Improvements are in store that would make Amtrak Downeaster run from Portland to Boston more reliable, thanks in part to Florida’s refusal to take federal high-speed rail money.
The federal Department of Transportation awarded $20.8 million to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority for the Downeaster project, which is designed to alleviate congestion in a high-traffic part of the line in Massachusetts responsible for much of the delays experienced by the service.
The money comes from $2 billion made available when Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled a proposed high-speed train line between Orlando and Tampa. The money was divided among 22 projects chosen from 98 applicants.
“Competition for this funding was tough,” Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said in a statement. “(We are) grateful to the Federal Railroad Administration for recognizing the importance of the Downeaster to Maine and our region by continuing to invest in our service.”
The Downeaster project will create 10.4 miles of double track between Wilmington and Andover, Mass., eliminating a bottleneck by allowing trains to more easily pass one another. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has the right of way for track in the area.
Ten Downeaster trains now share this stretch of single track with 26 MBTA commuter trains and several Pan Am Railway freight trains. The MBTA line accounts for nearly 65 percent of the Downeaster’s delay time.
One-way trips between Portland and Boston’s North Station now take two hours and 25 minutes to two hours and 30 minutes. The longer trips have the extra five minutes built in because of the bottleneck.
The rail authority expects the double track will increase scheduling flexibility and could eventually allow the Downeaster to add another round trip to the five per day the service runs now.
The money will also go toward replacing a section of older welded rail that causes a bumpy ride and other improvements, Quinn said.
Double-tracking as much of the Downeaster line as possible is an important goal for TrainRiders/Northeast, said Wayne Davis, chairman of the Portland-based rail advocacy group. The 116-mile line is almost entirely single track.
Davis said the 10.4 miles of double track will allow trains to go faster. Delays generally stem from trains missing a small window in congested areas and having to wait for another train to pass, he said.
“This is a good, good thing to have happen. It puts us on the way to accomplishing the rest of our goals,” he said.
Davis noted that the addition of double track in Dover, N.H., helped establish a fifth daily round trip from the city in 2007.
He hopes the new project will fill existing holes in the schedule from Portland. Currently, there’s no train out of Portland from 2:35 p.m. to 7:55 p.m. on weekdays and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. There are no Downeaster trains out of Boston from about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on any day.
In February, Scott, the Florida governor, turned down $2.4 billion that had been awarded for the Tampa-to-Orlando line, saying he didn’t want to saddle Florida taxpayers with long-term operating costs.
The following month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood invited other states to apply for the money. The 98 applications came from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak.
Politicians in the Northeast enthusiastically lobbied for the money, hoping to improve their constituents’ travel times and lure more passengers away from the region’s gridlocked highways and congested airports. Delays at New York’s three main airports frequently snarl air travel across the United States.
The bulk of the $2 billion goes to the congested Washington-New York-Boston corridor, where $795 million in improvements should allow trains to run at 160 mph on a stretch where they are currently limited to 135 mph. Another $404 million will go toward increasing speeds to 110 mph between Chicago and Detroit.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.