AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted Friday to begin auditing the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority after critics raised concerns about the transparency and operations of the group that runs Amtrak’s Downeaster train service.

The decision to direct the state’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to launch a preliminary review comes at a time when the rail authority is under increased scrutiny from critics and pressure to improve the Downeaster’s on-time performance between Maine and Boston.

OPEGA’s review will also provide lawmakers with an independent analysis of a quasi-governmental agency that receives $10 million in taxpayer funding – including $2 million from the state – and that could be critical to efforts to expand passenger rail service in Maine.

“It’s not that I think that there is anything improper going on at this agency,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, which voted unanimously to support the review. “But they are a quasi-governmental agency that doesn’t get a lot of scrutiny from any committee of jurisdiction in the Legislature. And I think it’s important that those agencies, in particular, occasionally get reviewed by OPEGA.”

OPEGA’s nonpartisan audit also could sidestep some of the political tensions swirling around the authority as it tries to win regulatory approval for a large, controversial train layover facility near downtown Brunswick. That development proposal will be the subject of a March 25 hearing by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on the authority’s request for a stormwater permit.

The rail authority’s executive director, Patricia Quinn, said such reviews are “par for the course” for agencies such as hers and that she welcomed the opportunity to answer questions that have been raised.

“As a public agency, obviously it is our obligation and our duty to provide information and be transparent,” Quinn said. “I think what we’ve learned today, again, is that people don’t really understand what we do, who we are and where to go for information. So we are happy to answer any of these questions.”

Created by the Legislature in 1995, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority manages the Downeaster Amtrak service between Brunswick, Portland and Boston.

The Downeaster has been hailed as a national model for restoring regional passenger rail service. But as Friday’s hearing illustrated, the rail authority has its share of critics.

One of those is Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat who has clashed publicly with the rail authority’s leadership and who requested the audit. Gerzofsky insisted several times that the proposed layover facility “has nothing to do with this” audit request, and that he was responding to other concerns raised by constituents.

Gerzofsky complained that he has been told he must submit formal requests under Freedom of Access laws for information and that the rail authority’s leaders have not been cooperative with him, other elected officials or even the authority’s own board members.

“When I have selectmen from other communities in my district … question me on things that they can’t get answers on, I find that very disturbing,” Gerzofsky said. “So this request is about transparency as much as anything.”

“I just ran out of ways of trying over the last four years to be able to get an answer to a simple question,” Gerzofsky added later.

Others defended the rail authority’s transparency and performance in the face of conditions that were often beyond the agency’s control.

“This is Amtrak’s jewel,” said Wayne Davis, chairman of the nonprofit organization TrainRiders/Northeast, which worked to restore Boston-to-Maine passenger rail service. “This train should be the model for the nation, so we just don’t understand the attacks.”

By all accounts, it’s been a rough year for the Downeaster.

More than 50 train trips were canceled in July because the owner of the tracks between Brunswick and Boston, Pan Am Railways, was replacing railroad ties and because two pedestrians were struck and killed in separate incidents. Then came this winter’s debilitating snowstorms, which prompted more than three dozen train cancellations in February alone.

According to Amtrak statistics, the Brunswick-to-Boston train ran on time just 22.3 percent of the time during the past year. January’s on-time performance was only slightly better at 37.4 percent.

“We have a service in crisis, frankly,” Quinn said. “This winter … has been really troublesome.”

Quinn said Friday that the severe winter storms and resulting cancellations underscore the need for the Brunswick train layover facility. The rail authority said the 60,000-square-foot facility where trains can be housed and serviced will improve efficiency and help expand service to the region.

Opponents contend the facility is inappropriate for a residential area, however, and their complaints have caught the ears of both Gerzofsky and Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Last year, LePage’s environmental chief, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, took the unusual step of assuming more oversight over the state’s review of the layover facility.

OPEGA will conduct preliminary research on the rail authority before presenting the Government Oversight Committee with a list of more detailed proposals for the scope of the full review. Likely areas of focus, according to documents released Friday, include the rail authority’s cost-effectiveness, oversight process and management’s effectiveness in living up to its statutory purpose.

Committee members expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm for the potential audit.

“The concerns raised are good enough reasons to take a look at whether there are things that need to be improved at the agency in order to achieve that ongoing future success” of passenger rail in Maine, said Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville.

Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, and Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, a Sanford Democrat who occasionally rides the Downeaster, said they would like to see more information on specific concerns about the rail authority and current oversight of the agency.