Ready and waiting
High speed rail grant comes after years of preparation and advocacy
By Kathryn Buxton
The announcement in late January that Maine is to receive $35 million in federal stimulus dollars to extend the Downeaster Amtrak service to Freeport and Brunswick couldn’t have been more welcome. Maine rail advocates have been pushing to have the passenger service extended since before the Downeaster made its first run between Boston and Portland in February 2009.
That is why it is little surprise that the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) and Pan Am Railways immediately announced plans to begin track improvements as soon as the weather permits. Pan Am, which owns the line the expanded passenger service will operate on, will receive the bulk of the funding which it will use to replace the 1930s-era rails and upgrade 36 crossings on the 30-mile route between Portland and Brunswick.
The $35 million grant from the Federal Rail Authority (FRA) is part of $8 billion set aside for high speed rail projects in the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act (ARRA) signed into law in February 2009.
“We are ready to go,” Pan Am President David Fink told a crowd assembled at a press conference announcing the grant. He noted that the work replacing the old rails will begin in Brunswick and proceed south toward Portland. Fink said he expected the work to take place over the 2010 and 2011 construction seasons, given the materials – including approximately 24,000 ties – are readily available. Fink also stated that Pan Am intends to continue operating freight service on the line.
In addition to upgrades that will smooth the ride and reduce maintenance on the line, the grant includes funding for construction of a passenger platform in Freeport, located near Bow Street and Depot Road. There also will be some additional drainage work to complete on the route. Both the drainage and platform contracts will be managed by either MaineDOT or NNEPRA, according NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn.
The net result of the FRA grant will be 200 railroad, construction and manufacturing jobs created as a direct result of the line’s extension and are central to the intent of the ARRA legislation.
“That’s people not working now that will be called to work,” said Quinn. “Then they can pay their bills and put gas in their cars and get haircuts. I think that is going to be significant.”
There also promises to be jobs created in Brunswick, where the town and Bowdoin College already have invested $11 million in a new train station and retail complex via a 2007 joint development agreement with JHR Development of Massachusetts. The development eventually calls for 106,000 square feet of mixed-use space in six buildings on a former brownfield site in downtown Brunswick near the college.
The first phase of the development, two buildings that house the station, a bookstore, two restaurants and a dance studio, was completed in 2009. The announcement of the federal grant has been echoed by news that JHR Development is set to break ground on phase two of the commercial development centered around the station. Those plans include construction of a 54-room inn, according to Mike Lyne of JHR Development, with plans to open in spring 2011.
“Getting good news about the Downeaster certainly helps,” said Lyne who called the train a key “economic driver for the project and for downtown Brunswick.”
The reconditioning of the line is expected to be complete and service between Brunswick and Portland is set to begin in 2012. Plans are for two to three round trips between Portland and Brunswick with hopes to add more. Officials expect the service to initially focus on tourism travelers, not commuters.
Meanwhile, NNEPRA’s Quinn said that everyone is ready and waiting to get to work. Quinn said that NNEPRA has invested approximately $100,000 already for engineeering. The biggest hurdle has been the heavy snows that paralyzed Washington, D.C. during early February. With federal offices closed due to the weather, it has been difficult to get grant details from the FRA.
“There have been so many starts and stops,” said Quinn. “This is going to be a great service and the long-term benefits are going to far exceed our expectations.”