– By JONATHAN RISKIND
MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON – Deep cuts that would have crippled the Downeaster rail service between Portland and Boston have been sidetracked.
“We fought hard to preserve Amtrak funding, and I am pleased that, after vigorous debate, we were able to maintain funding for state-supported routes such as the Downeaster,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote in an email Monday announcing a deal that preserves the funding. Collins is a member of the transportation appropriations subcommittee.
A House transportation subcommittee earlier this year approved a 2012 spending bill that cut Amtrak’s operating budget by 60 percent and prohibited Amtrak from using federal dollars for state-supported inter-city rail lines such as the Downeaster, which stops at a total of 10 stations in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and next year is to expand to stations in Brunswick and Freeport.
This week, Congress votes on the final House-Senate compromise on a broad 2012 spending measure that includes transportation and agriculture. The final House-Senate agreement, which still must be approved by each body, is for $1.4 billion.
Rail passenger advocate Wayne Davis of Topsham said he heaved a “big sigh of relief” at the news.
The move to preserve Amtrak funding “means that the (Downeaster) service that over 500,000 people a year have come to enjoy will continue,” said Davis, chairman of the nonprofit TrainRiders/Northeast, a volunteer organization that pushed for the Downeaster route, which began operating in 2001.
“Preserving Amtrak funding is the right thing to do,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a statement. “The bill the House passed would have devastated rail service in Maine and across the country.”
The Senate had passed a version of the bill granting Amtrak $1.48 billion, and maintaining federal support for state-supported routes. The House gave Amtrak a total of $1.1 billion, and cut the operating budget to $227 million from $563 million.
Rail funding proponents say they didn’t think the Senate would accept a final bill with such deep cuts.
“The House bill cut funding way back below where Amtrak could even survive,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages the Downeaster on behalf of Maine and contracts with Amtrak to operate the service.
Quinn said that she and others in the rail industry “had a level of confidence that it wasn’t going to be that bad but you never take anything for granted.”
The authority’s total 2011 operating budget is $15.1 million, with $12 million of that paid to Amtrak to operate the Downeaster. The authority brings in $8 million in revenue from sources such as ticket sales and food concessions, leaving a $7.1 million shortfall. Most of that shortfall is made up by federal surface transportation formula funding that goes to the states, as well as from a state-imposed car rental sales tax.
Quinn noted that Congress recently approved spending $38 million to extend Downeaster service to Brunswick and Freeport and millions of dollars more to improve rail lines in Massachusetts.
One disappointment to rail advocates was that $100 million for high speed rail projects contained in the original Senate bill was not included in the final agreement.
MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: