BRUNSWICK — Every form of transport has partisans. In the last 20 years, passenger rail enthusiasts have trumpeted the benefits of a legacy transportation mode that died off mid-20th century for lack of public support and economic viability. They convinced authorities to “invest” well over $70 million to create the Amtrak Downeaster.

It began service in 2001, running between Portland and Boston. This is an irrational sum to spend on a boutique travel experience catering to a tiny number of passenger rail buffs, especially when more reliable, economical and flexible modes of travel are in everyday use, and improving steadily. Claims that the Downeaster is a force for congestion mitigation and air quality improvement don’t pass any straight-face test.

Ridership numbers seem impressive – in the range of 500,000 per year – roughly 1,500 per day. But everyone is a round tripper, and almost half travel only in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, netting about 400 Mainers using the service daily. Spread across five round trips between Portland (two extend to Brunswick) and Boston, each with a capacity of over 250.

These numbers pale in comparison to the traffic on nearly any street. For example, at 1.7 passengers per vehicle, Spring Street in Brunswick, a little-known side street, carries twice the traffic of the Downeaster, according to the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center.

More recently, state, local and federal authorities agreed to sink another $50 million-plus in the Downeaster’s extension from Portland north to Brunswick and Freeport. Now the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is in the process of spending another $30 million-plus on the extension, which carries less than 10 percent of total ridership.

It will be funded at the same level as the segment carrying 90 percent-plus of riders. This is a bizarrely disproportionate waste of taxpayer dollars for no meaningful gain – all while running a deficit of $12.9 million in this fiscal year, up from $10.4 million last year, for an operating loss of 57 percent. (See page 11 of


The rationale for spending this additional $22 million to $32 million is to increase the number of round trips between Brunswick and Portland. Trains servicing this link average 17 riders – unimpressive with a capacity of 250-plus, and in view of an existing bus line that has serviced the same points for decades, with superior service for those using Logan Airport. There also have been recent developments in Lewiston-Auburn, where major strides will be made in public transit for minimal front-end expense.

When complete, this will put total capital expense for the Downeaster in the $150 million-plus range. Add operating deficits since inception, and taxpayers will have kicked in $250 million so far and will keep doing so at $13 million (and growing) in annual operating subsidies alone.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s extravagance brings to mind troubling excesses uncovered at other state authorities: the Maine Turnpike and Maine State Housing, which share the same accountability and transparency flaws.

The sales pitch for Downeaster service has been that huge “economic prosperity” would flow from the creation of the service, and in particular, the extension to Brunswick. The latter is provably false (see my presentation to the Maine Department of Transportation’s Passenger Rail Advisory Council at

Roads, highways and bridges at both state and national levels are urgently in need of serious repair and reconstruction, with deferred maintenance causing conditions to steadily decline. In Maine, with a widely scattered population, the needs for such repairs are especially critical. There are other limited ways to get from depot A to depot B, but none as flexible and efficient as motorized vehicles operating on public roads and highways. Personal mobility is an expression of liberty, and in Maine, it’s more essential than almost anywhere else.

We all need roads and bridges to conduct our daily lives and get where we must, whether for life’s necessities, or activities such as entertainment, dining out, etc. Infrastructure is the basic circulatory system of civic existence, including public safety and emergency services. and the means by which commerce and fundamental economic exchange take place.

In view of the urgent needs so evident in our common, widely used infrastructure, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s ill-considered and clearly wasteful additional spending on the extension should be stopped in its tracks.

Catering to a select few – the passenger rail legacy zealots – at the expense of the many is a bridge too far. We urge responsible state and federal officials to immediately suspend this unwarranted capital project, and to reprogram the funds for critical infrastructure needs that benefit everyone.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: