In two coastal Maine towns, the excitement and potential surrounding this fall's arrival of Amtrak service is palpable. Construction of and around new train stations in Freeport and Brunswick is proceeding apace, and trackwork on this section of Pan Am Railways track is nearing completion. Freeport Economic Development Corporation President Sandy Updegraff told a WLBZ-TV reporter that calls of "all aboard!" this November will provide "an extreme shot in the arm" for her town's economy.
The extension of two of the five daily Amtrak Downeaster round-trips from Portland, ME east to Brunswick will represent the first addition of route mileage to the Amtrak system since the Downeaster itself started running 13 years ago. It will also, as with most successes in passenger rail, represent the culmination of years of planning and design work. Future riders and local businesses will also be indebted to TrainRiders/Northeast and other supporters who fought to win the state legislature's financial backing for the new station construction. They can also thank President Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and leaders in Congress who won the 2009 Recovery Act's $8 billion investment in passenger train infrastructure, part of which is funding the track and signal work east of Portland.
In Brunswick, the final touches are being applied to a new, 400-foot elevated passenger platform. There, riders will be able to connect between the Downeaster and the Maine Eastern Railroad's seasonal excursion service east to Bath and Rockland (which will start using the new platform in late June). New buildings are popping up around the station that will house retail shops and restaurants. In Freeport, home of L.L. Bean's flagship outlet store, the same company that is building the Brunswick platform is building a shorter elevated platform.
The Northern New Englad Passenger Rail Authority, which manages the Downeaster in cooperation with Amtrak, estimates that the extension will bring 100 additional riders aboard Downeaster trains each day. Local leaders are confident that people will be eager to use the train to reach these destinations, which will now be easily and affordably accessible from Boston, without the stress of driving and parking.
The tremendously successful Downeaster would not have gotten off the ground if the state of Maine lacked the flexibility to use federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant funding, which until 1999 was limited only to transit and commuter rail projects, to fund intercity passenger train service. Congress granted that flexibility as part of the current surface transportation authorization law, which is now set to expire on June 30th. Unless a provision in the Senate-passed two-year authorization bill extending intercity trains' eligibility for CMAQ funds, which was absent from the House-passed version, is retained in the final bill, the Downeaster and future intercity corridor trains may lose this key lifeline.
NARP is calling on the House-Senate conference committee, which is meeting this week to iron out the differences between each chamber's transportation bill, to retain this and other passenger train-friendly provisions of the Senate bill. NARP sent our letter to the conferees today. You can join our call by contacting your Senators and Representative, especially if one of them is a conferee (click here for the list).