February 4, 2013

Expansion of passenger trains in Maine takes slow track

Taking the Downeaster beyond Brunswick hinges on crucial projects and powers of persuasion.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 3)

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Gordon Page Sr., director of passenger rail operations, Maine Eastern Railroad:

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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These overgrown railroad tracks are in Bowdoinham. Plans to expand passenger service to Augusta are on hold.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Passenger trains, Arlinghaus says, make more sense in major urban areas. "It would be hard for New York City to exist without trains, but it would be easy for Montana," he says. "Both our states are a lot more like Montana."

Surprisingly, statistics show that the Downeaster currently comes closer to paying for itself than the Big Apple's heavily used commuter trains. Passenger fares cover 60 percent of the Downeaster's costs, compared to 59 percent for Metro-North (which connects Manhattan with southern Connecticut and Westchester County) or 49 percent for the Long Island Rail Road. The rest of the Downeaster's costs are covered by federal funds (about $8 million a year) and the state government (another $1.2 million).

But Quinn at the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority says passenger rail's real advantage is as an economic development tool, prompting real estate developments and attracting businesses while reducing road congestion.

In 2004, when the Downeaster had fewer destinations and departures, the Maine DOT found it was responsible for $15 million in economic activity in Maine and New Hampshire alone, more than twice its public subsidy at the time. Since then, it helped prompt an $80 million mixed-use development near the Saco station, a $20 million condo project at Old Orchard Beach, and a $30 million hotel complex in Brunswick. The train also is expected to generate more than $2 million in additional Maine tax revenue this year.

"You get more than transportation from A to B," Quinn says. "It's helped revitalize communities, create more jobs and improve the quality of life, and it's also the most environmentally friendly form of transportation. It's an economic engine for the region."

But for now, the authority is focused on getting the existing Boston-Brunswick service up to snuff, making the pitch for new tracks, signals and other infrastructure in all three of the states it passes through. The goal: seven round-trips from Boston to Portland, with up to five going on to Brunswick.

"We have to take care of the core service first," Davis says. "Everything else builds on that."

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

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