Press reports and related comments on the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s plan to construct a 60,000-square-foot maintenance and layover facility adjacent to a Brunswick neighborhood generally have portrayed the situation as a love-hate battle between visionary train enthusiasts and narrow-minded, self-centered, obstructionist abutters. No attention has been paid to the far larger issue of a quasi-public agency arguably intent on empire-building with taxpayer funds on a highly questionable foundation of market intelligence, economic analysis and regulatory compliance.
The passenger rail authority’s build-it-and-they-will-come approach worked with the establishment of scheduled Amtrak Downeaster passenger service between Boston and Portland because market demand already had been established by two inter-city bus operators. The train carved out a portion of existing patronage and probably helped to expand it somewhat as well.
Its 2012 extension to Freeport and Brunswick is a different story, as there was no conclusive history of public transportation. The challenge therefore was not splitting market share but creating demand in a short, 28-mile corridor with a parallel interstate highway that has a 70 mph speed limit.
That task was further complicated by the fact that many people from Brunswick and other midcoast communities had become accustomed to driving to the Portland Transportation Center for bus and train connections to Boston, both as a destination and transfer point for further air, rail or road travel. The private automobile represents faster and more flexible short-haul competition, affording single-seat, door-to-door convenience that public transportation cannot match. Moreover, the downtown “end of the line” station site in Brunswick is not conducive for attracting travelers from surrounding towns to drive there rather than Portland, which offers ample terminal parking as well as far more connecting schedule options for bus and train.
At 116 miles, Boston is readily accessible from Portland for business, entertainment or continued travel without need for overnight accommodations. Brunswick is on the fringe for same-day round trips, however, and points beyond not only are less densely populated, but relate more to Portland for the same reason.
Those hurdles have plagued what so far is a $38-million infrastructure investment of federal funds to bring the “Downeaster” to Brunswick. Ridership numbers belie Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s contention that public response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” averaging well under a busload per train. (Only 82 of 1,741 revenue-producing trains boarded or discharged more than 50 passengers at Brunswick in 2013.) Occupancy declines as trip length increases outside metropolitan areas, and incremental revenues beyond Portland come nowhere near associated expenses for trackage rights, train crews, locomotive fuel, taxi service and other ancillary items, thereby increasing required subsidy.
Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority seeks an additional $30 million from federal and state government for a “service optimization project” to correct shortcomings in the original Portland-Brunswick plan — a wye track to eliminate a backing move at Portland, a new Yarmouth siding to allow trains to pass in opposite directions, and the controversial Brunswick building. The agency seems to have a one-track mindset — fixation with the “Downeaster” rather than solving a perceived transportation need in a cost-effective manner. Aside from the matter of subsidization, $68 million seems a high price to pay to facilitate a same-seat trip on a limited schedule to a single destination (Boston’s North Station) that does not serve multiple travel objectives.
A modern motor coach is simply more versatile and cost-effective than the train for local service in a sparsely populated state such as Maine. It requires no new infrastructure outlay, represents relatively modest vehicle investment, operates on existing public infrastructure, can turn at any intersection and stop anywhere along its changeable route, and provides far greater service frequency than a train, with less noxious emissions and attendant noise. Operations can be implemented quickly, without years of advance planning and daunting front-end funding requirements. What’s not to like about that scenario?
In short, what may appear to be a petty “not-in-my-backyard” controversy really raises a serious question of whether Northern New England Passenger Rail Authoritys valid mission has been accomplished. Should it have any responsibility for additional rail passenger services? Should Amtrak (which has its own financial problems with outlying state-supported routes elsewhere) be involved in any operations beyond Portland? Should more suitable self-propelled equipment replace four- and five-car train sets in such light-density services? Are there ways to save the $30 million?
Does it make sense to proceed with construction of an outsized maintenance center in defiance of local zoning and permitting requirements when (a) Portland-Brunswick service conceivably could be curtailed or suspended, (b) the state may not be able to accept an increased subsidy burden, or (c) Lewiston-Auburn or Augusta might become the end of the line? The supreme irony of the whole proposition is that the Brunswick building, which many big-city commuter agencies would envy, could accommodate up to 60 buses.
George C. Betke Jr. is president of Transport Economics Inc., a Newcastle consultancy.