A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Train Enthusiasm Meets Fiscal Realities

As reported in a story in today's Lewiston Sun-Journal, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments is wrapping up a feasibility study for extending Amtrak service to the edge of Auburn - and potentially on through western Maine to Montreal. Here's a link to the public presentation the study team made the other night.

This has been a long-awaited study for rail advocates. But the news it delivered wasn't especially good for rail fans. I'll let the Sun-Journal's lede sum it up:
Establishing regular rail service between Auburn and Portland in 2020 could cost up to $234 million to start and could require an $8 million annual subsidy, according to a new study presented Wednesday night.
That figure is expressed in 2020 dollars - which, adjusted for inflation, amount to roughly $180 million in startup costs and a $6.1 million annual operating budget in today's dollars (assuming an average annual inflation rate of 3%). Putting the costs in 2011 dollars makes for easier comparisons to other Amtrak projects, like the expansion to Brunswick (which cost about $35 million). But by expressing the costs in future terms, the study's authors are already acknowledging that the money (in 2011 dollars) doesn't exist to make this happen.

There's more discouraging news: the extension to Auburn would be contingent on improving the existing Portland-to-Boston line for faster trains and one more daily round trip (for seven in all). Those are worthwhile projects, but they'll also be expensive - between $120 and $150 million.* This project alone will take several years to fund and build - I'll be pleasantly surprised if it happens by 2020.

Plus, the proposed train wouldn't even stop in downtown Lewiston/Auburn, within walking distance of thousands of jobs. Instead, it would stop on the industrial outskirts of town, in between a little-used airport and a complex of industrial warehouses. Passengers bound for L/A would need to take a bus shuttle to get anywhere.

Then there's the hard fiscal realities we're dealing with: the state is broke, and even if an increasingly tight-fisted Washington scares up more money for passenger rail, I would doubt that a project to connect two small cities in Maine with a 60 MPH train is going to rise to the top of national priorities.

So what's a transit advocate to do? Two things.

  1. Don't rely on Washington or Augusta - local funding will be crucial to bringing Amtrak to L/A, and these cities could afford it, if they only started spending less money on parking garages and highway interchanges. Lewiston, in particular, has gone on a parking building binge in the past decade, spending tens of millions of dollars in local tax dollars to subsidize car travel. Auburn's about to build an expensive white elephant parking garage of their own. And both cities are pursuing big-ticket roadway expansions.

    The costs of all these automotive subsidies rival the costs of the proposed Amtrak expansion. Not only is this diverting money from transit improvements; it's also undermining the demand for transit down the road, by filling up downtown real estate with acres of car-storage units instead of with transit-oriented housing and workplaces.

  2. But you can't have new housing and workplaces unless you're able to bring more people into downtown L/A, so start cultivating transit-oriented development now with a low-cost intercity bus service between Portland, L/A, and Augusta. That will bring new workers, businesses, and households into L/A's affordable downtown districts, raise property values, encourage new investment, and create a stronger customer base for when the cities are finally ready to invest in rail.
And as a matter of fact, the L/A Amtrak study concluded with a recommendation that an express bus should run between downtown Lewiston and downtown Portland as an interim measure. Sounds like a great idea to me.

*"Expensive" is relative, of course. The Maine Turnpork Authority had been planning to spend the same amount of money just to widen 9 miles of highway inside Portland's city limits. If Maine does in fact have that kind of money to throw around, the Downeaster is obviously a better place to invest it.


Anonymous said...

As a longtime Maine resident, and "Streetsblog" reader, "ROW" has managed to find its way to the top of my blogroll as the most dependable source for news about sustainable development in my home region. I moved back to Maine from NYC because I see it as having the most potential for enacting sustainable livability programs that one might otherwise only see in larger metropolitan areas. Thus far it has been nice to hear a "voice in the wilderness" pointing out things like outdated zoning regulations that force developers to build more parking than housing etc...
Thus far... Until this most recent post... I can't for the life of me figure out an ounce of sense out of your argument! First off. I don't see anything in the so-called "fiscal realities" of the rail study that transportation advocates didn't already know. Everybody knows that "baseline improvements" need to happen before further Downeaster service expansions. Thats why NNEPRA is working on them RIGHT NOW! They got a federal grant to develop an EIS for the trackage in need of upgrades a couple months ago and I wouldn't be surprised if they secure funding from Obama's HSR push. I could see them finishing work on eliminating the Haverhill bottleneck by 2014.
Yeah, OF COURSE the state has no money! With LePage in control NOBODY expects leadership from Augusta. At least not now! Of course, you might've noticed that gas has already reached $4/Gal in some places in Maine. I'm willing to bet that after this current news cycle, suddenly talk about rail transit will be hot again. You'll probably start hearing words like "Infrastructure Bank" and "Private-Public Partnerships" and gas prices might just finally be the push they need to think of new funding strategies.
But of course, I haven't addressed your "answer" to this "fiscal reality". Busses... Wonderful, cheap, sustainable... Busses? Really?
Sure, busses can serve a purpose. In that they connect the central transportation corridor to outlying areas of low density. But they don't generate development.
The point is very simple. RAIL ATTRACTS DEVELOPMENT. That is why you build it! BUSSES DON"T! There is NO SUCH THING as TOD built around busses! Why? Ask a developer... They'll tell you that rails (whether light rail, intercity or commuter) are permanent and busses can stop running anytime they choose (or when their in traffic). So property values won't increase simply because of proximity to a bus stop. Call it BRT or whatever you want. And THATS the fiscal reality.
Now I guess I never really thought of myself as a rail advocate so maybe thats why I wasn't so shocked by the so-called "fiscal realities" of the rail study. I always thought that "sustainable transportation" meant leveraging every mode in order to maximize their strengths. You build busses to expand the reach of the urban core but you build trains when you want to rebuild the urban core or to connect between urban centers. Bus alone won't do this...

Anonymous said...

Or maybe this is what you had in mind


C Neal said...

I've posted a response to the above as a new blog post:


Anonymous said...

This is a classic example of really bad planning. Contrary to what they have said, you really need HOURLY regional train service from downtown Portland to downtown Lewiston/Auburn, operating from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, 7 days per week. Timed connections to local transit systems are also required, preferably with cross-platform connections at each end and at in-between stations.

Such a service would carry at least an order of magnitude more riders than this piece of crap, mainly because such a system would actually be useful both locals. AND it could attract many more through riders to Boston with timed, cross platform connections to the Downeaster trains in Portland, e.g., 7 round trips per day, even with a few minutes for transfers, is much more frequent that 2-3 round trips per day, thus attracting many more riders.

Based on numbers like $240 million investment to carry less than 100,000 riders per year, the people who commissioned this study are incompetent, and the consultants who wrote it are unethical, to try to say this b.s. is justified. All they're really doing is giving the Teabaggers a justified hook about wasteful government spending.