Brunswick senator seeks probe of Downeaster railroad operations

Posted March 12, 2015, at 5:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s watchdog committee will be asked Friday to launch an investigative audit of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the group that oversees passenger rail service between Boston and a number of southern Maine communities.

Democratic Sen. Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick says he has received numerous complaints from constituents about the authority — and the Brunswick-to-Boston Amtrak Downeaster service it oversees — ranging from late trains to poor track maintenance.

“I’ve become more and more concerned in the last four years in the direction they’re going in and the oversight that I feel is being ignored,” Gerzofsky said Thursday. “I think it’s time for the Legislature, which is funding this, to reassert its oversight responsibilities and to have a full audit.”

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said her organization will cooperate with any government audits, just as it participates in periodic audits by the Federal Transit Authority and the Federal Railroad Administration, as well as a yearly internal financial audit.

“These kinds of audits are not unusual to us,” said Quinn. “Whatever new or repeat information folks need, we’re happy to comply.”

Gerzofsky is proposing that the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigate the authority’s use of taxpayer dollars, its contracting procedures, its oversight measures, its treatment of members of its board of directors, and the effectiveness of its short- and long-range planning. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority received $2 million in state funding in each of the past two years, which is supplemented by a range of federal funds.

The Legislature created the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority in 1995 to develop and manage Amtrak’s Downeaster passenger rail service. The Downeaster has been plagued by late arrivals and departures, which Gerzofsky said are among the worst in the country. Quinn attributes the problem to variables such as harsh winters and maintenance problems.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority has proposed building an enclosed maintenance facility in Brunswick, the siting of which some Brunswick residents, including Gerzofsky, oppose. Gerzofsky said his request for an audit has no connection with that proposal. Quinn said the facility would help the railroad address some of its scheduling and maintenance problems.

“There’s no question that right now there are significant issues with on-time performance with the Downeaster,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve been alone with what we’re experiencing, and this is one of the reasons we’re advocating so strongly for our layover facility.”

Gerzofsky, who is a member of the Government Oversight Committee, said his goal is to ensure that taxpayer money is used as efficiently as possible.

“We subsidize the trains, we subsidize the tracks, and we subsidize the tickets,” he said. “I’d like to feel a little more comfortable that we’re getting the best service that money can buy because [the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority] is getting all the money they’re asking for.”

The Government Oversight Committee must vote to authorize OPEGA to launch an investigation. Gerzofsky said he expects that vote to take place Friday.

 

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