Maine receives $35 million Recovery Act funds for railroad improvements

By Ramona du Houx

March 21, 2010 ·

281fe6e9df543232-wbtrain5-300x200Conductors check the time on the line that the Downeaster will share with this railroad. Rep. Chellie Pingree said, “It will put over 200 people to work improving the rail line and bring economic development to downtown train stations in communities like Freeport and Brunswick.” Photo by Ramona du Houx

Maine received a $35 million grant to extend passenger rail service from Portland north to Freeport and Brunswick.

“The Downeaster is one of Amtrak’s most successful lines and is a national model for the successful introduction of new intercity passenger rail service,” said Governor John Baldacci. “By extending service to Freeport and Brunswick, more travelers will be connected to a national rail network, which will spur business growth and increase tourism.”

The grant is part of an $8 billion program to enhance rail service around the country. According to the White House, the Northeast will receive nearly $1.2 billion in grants that will help to lay new track and upgrade existing lines.

“This is a significant economic boost to Maine,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree. “It will put over 200 people to work improving the rail line and bring economic development to downtown train stations in communities like Freeport and Brunswick . We’ve already seen how the Downeaster has created economic growth along the existing route. Now it’s time to bring that to the Midcoast.”

Work will begin immediately on the rail line and train service to Brunswick. Crews will begin the upgrades as soon as the new rails and ties are delivered and weather permits, according to Pan Am Railways, which owns the railroad and will do the work.

“We are ready to go,” said David Fink, Pan Am Railways president.

More than 28 miles of track will be replaced, 30,000 ties laid and 36 crossings improved.

“The investment is especially important as we work to redevelop Brunswick Naval Air Station, and will benefit the entire Midcoast region and State,” said Brunswick State Rep. Alexander Cornell du Houx.

The Downeaster has carried 2.7 million passengers, which is equivalent to taking 224 million passenger-miles off highways. The service has been operating between Boston and Portland since 2001.

“The rail improvements also provide a necessary link to the further expansion of passenger rail to Lewiston-Auburn and then, eventually, on to Montreal. Communities throughout Maine will be connected to a national rail network, making it easier and more efficient to travel,” said the Governor. “For nearly 20 years, we have been working to revitalize passenger rail service in Northern New England. And Intercity Passenger Rail service has been a long-term goal for our State, and my administration.”

In 2006, Baldacci issued an Executive Order reaffirming support for completing the Downeaster. In 2008, working with the legislature the Governor signed the “Rail Improvement Act” to provide funding to sustain Downeaster operations and complete service to Brunswick.

In addition, improvements will be made to freight rail service in the State.

“We have developed public-private partnerships to open freight rail services to industry.

Our economy is stronger when both passengers and shippers have more transportation options,” said the Governor. “We know that rail is good for the environment. But it’s also critical for our economy and for connecting our communities together.”

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority will manage the expansion project. Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of the Rail Authority said, “There were many, many requests for these grants and it’s really an honor that the Maine project was chosen. If Maine had to borrow money to fund this project the interest costs alone would have been $18 million. This announcement means Maine taxpayers are going to save millions of dollars.”

Because of years of planning, the project met shovel ready requirements of the stimulus grant. The project will also upgrade rails from Portland to Yarmouth Junction, an important step for extending service to Auburn.

The Governor has spoken to President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood about the importance of improved rail service in Northern New England.

“We would not be celebrating without the efforts of countless people, including the President and Vice President, our representatives in Washington, the Maine Legislature, TrainRiders/Northeast, and the business and community leaders who have had the vision to believe in passenger rail,” said Baldacci.

Twenty-one years ago, Wayne Davis, Chairman of Trainriders Northeast gathered nearly 90,000 signatures to pressure the Legislature to initiate passenger service from Boston to Brunswick. Davis received congratulatory e-mails and phone calls from around the country.

“This will fulfill the dream for an awful lot of Maine people to be able to get on the train in Midcoast Maine and ride all the way to Boston,” said Davis. “Nearly five million people go from the Boston area to Freeport to go shopping. That’s a big market that the Downeaster can tap in to.”

When the Brunswick extension is complete the next step will be to establish train service between Portland and Auburn.

“This is day one of a whole new era,” said Quinn.

The project should be completed in two construction seasons, enabling passengers to travel from Freeport and Brunswick to Portland and Boston by 2012.

Quinn said Recovery Act funds are the first step. Additional funding will be needed to build Maine’s rail infrastructure, a bond issue on the ballot this summer could help.