June 25, 2018
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Downeaster train: A track to employment, development

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was one of the first people to depart the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train on Thursday, November 1, 2012, during its maiden voyage from Boston to Brunswick.

Until October 2008, a swath of downtown Brunswick not far from Bowdoin College sat unused, a decades-old eyesore contaminated by coal ash and unfit for development or public use. Known as Maine Street Station, the rubble-strewn lot bankrupted a past redevelopment effort and marred an otherwise scenic downtown landscape.

On Nov. 1 of this year, an Amtrak Downeaster train rolled up to the platform at a new visitors’ center, to the same site, marking the extension of Amtrak’s Boston-to-Portland passenger rail service to Brunswick. Riders who disembarked from the train could dine at a restaurant or pub within the station complex. They could shop in stores that now occupy the rehabilitated brownfield site or luxuriate at a new inn. They could even seek medical attention at an adjacent walk-in clinic.

During the past four years, the prospect of passenger rail service fueled the successful conversion of Maine Street Station from a symbol of decay to a downtown renewal success story.

In a community suffering from the departure of roughly 5,000 jobs affiliated with Brunswick Naval Air Station, which closed incrementally between 2005 and 2011, the downtown project added employment opportunities and buoyed downtown merchants.

Now, the challenge will be to fully realize the potential benefits envisioned when state and federal officials first started collaborating to extend Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick. Any measure of the Downeaster’s success must look beyond a simple accounting of the rail line’s profitability to include its impact on the midcoast region as far up the coast as Rockland, because riders to Brunswick will be able to take Maine Eastern Railroad trains there.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a longtime advocate of the project who worked with Democrats in Augusta and Washington, D.C., to bring it to fruition, estimated that, within 20 years, adding Brunswick and Freeport to the Downeaster itinerary will create 800 more jobs and generate $325 million in construction contracts.

The extension also offers another opportunity to promote Maine’s quality of life to city dwellers accustomed to traveling by rail. Within a year, the Downeaster will deliver 36,500 riders to Brunswick and Freeport, according to Amtrak. That’s a new customer base for the state’s tourism, lodging and restaurant industry to tap. And their first impression of Maine won’t be a traffic logjam at the York toll plaza.

Amtrak’s detractors argue that because passenger rail requires federal subsidies to augment ticket revenues, it’s a bad investment. But as Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman pointed out during a September 2012 U.S. House Transportation Committee hearing, all forms of transportation — air travel, urban transit systems and highways — receive federal subsidies.

Amtrak now covers 85 percent of its expenses with ticket sales and other revenues, requiring a pittance in subsidies compared to what the federal government allocated during the past four years for the highway system.

Fares and other revenues cover about $8 million of the Downeaster’s $15 million annual operating costs. Annual allocations from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program within the U.S. Department of Transportation fund 80 percent of the balance, with the state covering the remainder through car rental sales tax revenues.

As Congress and the president figure out how to fund necessary national transportation needs when the federal gasoline tax no longer covers the bill, continuing the roughly $6 million yearly subsidy for the Downeaster, which annually breaks ridership and ticket revenue records, makes sense. Maintaining the steady rise in ticket sales would lead to a decreased need for government subsidies. In addition to underwriting the rail service, those subsidies contribute to economic development of the affected communities.

If the economic arguments don’t persuade you, take a train to Brunswick, grab a seat at a trackside pub or bistro and ask to see photos of what Maine Street Station looked like five years ago.

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