|A conductor helped a passenger off the Amtrak Downeaster as the train arrived in Portland, Maine, yesterday. A request to the Maine Legislature for funding will not be a slam dunk because it occurs as the state grapples with a backlog of bridge and highway repairs. (ROBERT F. BUKATY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)|
Funds uncertain as Downeaster marks 6th anniversary
PORTLAND, Maine - As Amtrak's Downeaster marks its sixth anniversary, the rail authority that runs the Portland-to-Boston service is preparing to roll into the Legislature to lobby for funding to keep the trains running in July 2009.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is seeking an annual appropriation of $7 million to $8 million to replace an expiring federal subsidy, which currently accounts for about half of the Downeaster's annual $13 million operating budget.
Patricia Quinn, the authority's executive director, said the Downeaster has proven itself with a 30 percent increase in ridership since the service's launch.
"We're hopeful that we get some commitment from the Legislature in this session, because that helps us in our planning efforts moving forward," she said. "It's hard to make plans, capital plans, changes to the service, if the future is uncertain."
Despite the Downeaster's success, the funding request will not be a slam dunk because it occurs as the state grapples with a backlog of bridge and highway repairs.
Already, there is a shortfall in funding for highways and bridges. And a report released last month in response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis calls for a $50 million to $60 million annual increase in funding per year for bridges.
"My impression from the Transportation Committee is that they're more worried about roads and bridges than they are about rail," said Representative Jeremy Fischer, Democrat of Presque Isle and cochairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee.
Fischer's spending committee, along with the Transportation Committee, stand to review the Downeaster's spending request.
The stakes are high. Without the state funding or some other funding source, the service won't be able to continue operation.
The Legislature will not have to spend any additional money during the coming session, in which lawmakers face a shortfall of $95 million.
Instead, supporters of the Downeaster will be seeking a commitment for funding in the following two-year budget cycle.
The funding already has support from Governor John Baldacci and the Maine Department of Transportation, but some lawmakers may be reluctant to commit to funding before the next Legislature is seated, Fischer said.
Also dogging the Downeaster is the perception that the train service benefits only people in Cumberland and York counties in southern Maine.
"The problem with the Downeaster is that it doesn't benefit all parts of Maine," Fischer said. "Where I'm from in Aroostook County we don't see any benefit from the Downeaster, but we do have problems with roads and bridges all over the place."
The Downeaster's supporters are fighting the perception that the train helps only southern Maine, along with New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They envision the service expanding first to Freeport and Brunswick and then to points farther north.
But already, people from across Maine use the train.
"Every zip code in Maine is represented on that train," said Wayne Davis of TrainRiders Northeast, a rail advocacy group that lobbied for the Downeaster and now is lobbying for state funding for the train.
The Downeaster launched on a dark, rainy morning on Dec. 15, 2001.
Back then, no one knew for sure whether the first passenger trains running between Portland and Boston in three decades would prove successful, despite transportation studies and more than $40 million in taxpayer money spent on track upgrades.
After the first year, ridership dipped before growing along with improvements including reduced transit time, schedule adjustments, and an additional daily roundtrip.
This year, 347,586 travelers rode the Downeaster through November, compared with 291,794 in 2002, the first full year of operation.
"When we started off, it was an attraction," Quinn said. "Now people are riding the train to get from point A to B, because it's pleasant, it's economical and it's efficient."
Deputy Transportation Commissioner Greg Nadeau said the Downeaster provides a vital economic link between Portland and Boston, as well as an important transportation alternative at a time of rising energy prices, highway congestion, and pollution.
Ten years from now, people will look back and view the $7 million or $8 million investment as small sum for the return on investment, he said.
Nobody wants a repeat of what happened three years ago, when the state's congressional delegation scrambled at the 11th hour to get a three-year extension on the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds.
The grant provides about $6 million per year, and the state provides a 20 percent match, $1.5 million. That, along with food and ticket sales of about $6 million, rounds out the Downeaster's operating budget.
Nadeau said he is optimistic that lawmakers will provide the funding to continue the service when the federal grant expires.
"The reality is we're significantly tied to the Boston market," Nadeau said. "The easier we can make it for Mainers to get there and for Boston people to come here and spend their money, the better off we'll all be."