2014-12-12 / Commentary

Afraid of Downeaster Truth?


The Amtrak Downeaster has been operating between Portland and Boston for more than 10 years; the extension between Portland and Brunswick has been in operation for two years.

The service to Brunswick has received glowing praise for its “great benefit” to our local economy. While no objective data can be found to support that claim, Brunswick taxpayers directly subsidize the service to the tune of $100,000 a year, or $2,000 a week. Community leaders are bursting with glee at plans to increase service to Brunswick from two round trips a day to five.

Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, the state agency that operates the Downeaster, was created by Maine State Law in 1995 during the King administration.

The law mandated creation of the agency, directed that it establish passenger rail service and obtain the funds to do so by whatever means it could find. The law did not call for assessment beforehand of public transportation needs; nor analysis of alternatives for meeting any credible needs; nor the creation of a viable, sustainable economic model for implementing and operating this service.

It simply directed that passenger rail service be established, without benefit of due diligence. As such, NNEPRA and the Downeaster are a perfect example of government decreeing a solution, and then sending it off in search of a problem that may or may not exist.

Brunswick is home to Bowdoin College, a respected, highly selective institution with an Economics department. They are committed to service learning and engagement with the community. Brunswick is proud of its relationship with the college, which among other things, resulted in the McLellan building becoming our town hall.

The absence of objective economic benefit data for the Downeaster provides an opportunity for a win-win town-gown collaborative effort. College economics students could evaluate the local economy, and Brunswick could gain economic insights to substantiate future decisions about Downeaster related policy and spending.

Accordingly, I proposed a collaborative ‘town-gown’ economic study of local Downeaster consequences. I drafted a ‘framework’ for the study, even suggesting tailored parameters that might apply.

Points to consider in such an effort include these: l Many local businesses offer no attraction to visitors, and would seldom if ever benefit from their travel here on the Downeaster. I doubt anyone comes to town on the train to do banking, get their hair done, their shirts laundered, their eyes tested, or their health tended to at a walk-in clinic.

? Claims by local businesses of meaningful patronage from train-riders must be balanced by the fact that no-one can measure the offsetting opportunities lost when area residents take their patronage out of town. There is, surely, a suction effect carrying dollars south, but identifying the specifics is uncomfortable, if not impolitic.

? Someone coming to town on the train does not mean they come to town because of the train. Diversion from one travel mode to another yields no economic benefit.

? Lack of specificity in ridership reporting is troubling. Virtually every rider is on a round-trip, some originating here, and some originating at points south. One traveler shows up as two in ridership figures.

? Downeaster effect on Concord Coach ridership is unknown. This service began long before Amtrak came to town. The bus service is far more economical, flexible, convenient, versatile, and environmentally friendly than the train.

My hope was to make the proposal a formal agenda item for council consideration and a vote. I spoke with four councilors about the possibility of sponsoring a motion so it could come before the council and the public. None signed on to do so. One spoke with a Bowdoin faculty member, who suggested grants would be necessary, it could not get underway before next summer, etc. This typifies bureaucratic inclinations to turn simple questions into grand pursuits, creating a ‘too hard’ perception.

Hence, the proposal is a ‘dead letter,’ and I can’t hep but wonder why. Are those I spoke to unwilling to face what could be disappointing realities? Has too much personal and taxpayer capital been invested in the groundwork for Maine Street Station and the Downeaster service? Are they fearful of offending various town leaders, of both the official and unofficial sort? Are they worried that developing a factual basis for future policy and funding could cause NNEPRA to discontinue service here? Is there a council Svengali who nixed the idea?

More to the point, is official Brunswick afraid of the truth? Or that such a study could not be conducted objectively? If so, what a sad story that tells about elected leadership, and what a pall it casts upon other discussions of governance that come before this body. Not to mention the perceived academic integrity of Bowdoin.

In closing, as someone said recently, lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and this situation may be as simple as that.


Pem Schaeffer is a retired Defense Industry Business Development Leader. He blogs at http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com.

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