AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Friday morning to launch a performance audit of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which oversees the Amtrak Downeaster train service from Maine to Boston.
The investigation was requested by Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who said his chief concern is transparency within the agency around the issue of whether it is using taxpayer dollars appropriately and efficiently. He also wants the probe to focus on a chronic problem for the train service that makes it run late the majority of the time.
The vote means that the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, a nonpartisan government watchdog agency that the Government Oversight Committee directs and oversees, will launch a probe as its resources allow. The first step in that process is preliminary data gathering, followed by further votes by the committee that will define the scope of the investigation.
“I’m not going to sit here today and say somebody did something terribly wrong,” Gerzofsky told the committee. “I’m going to ask the committee to see if everything was done right. … If we’re not going to do it, nobody’s going to do it.”
Gerzofsky said he and town officials in Brunswick and Freeport have had difficulty acquiring information and data from NNEPRA and have been told at times to file requests under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
Patricia Quinn, the authority’s executive director, told the BDN on Thursday that use of the FOAA process is encouraged so the authority’s six employees can document, track and prioritize requests for information. She said NNEPRA would cooperate fully with OPEGA’s probe.
The authority is seeking environmental permits for a maintenance facility it wants to build in Brunswick, which is opposed by some locals, including Gerzofsky, who told lawmakers that the project has nothing to do with his request for an audit.
“That has nothing to do with this and it never did,” he said. “It’s being brought to me by constituents.”
Lawmakers also are considering a bill that would fund a feasibility study around extending passenger and freight service to Auburn. Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, a member of the oversight committee, said he wanted to ensure the authority is running properly before any rail expansion.
“If we are ever to benefit from passenger rail or whatever a railroad can bring to us, we ought to do it right,” he said.
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said Gerzofsky’s allegations about the flow of data from NNEPRA concerned him.
“Transparency is a red flag to me,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong, but it does mean that we don’t know.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has been a vocal supporter of the railroad for years, including defending its federal funding. She said in a written statement Friday in response to questions from the BDN that Amtrak is already subject to annual federal audits.
“You can never really have too much oversight or transparency with taxpayer funding,” she said. “I’m sure that NNEPRA will provide the Legislature with the information they need. It seems like they are doing a great job running the Downeaster, and we haven’t heard any complaints.”
OPEGA is expected to launch its probe in the coming weeks and come back to the Government Oversight Committee this session with at least preliminary findings.