The operator of Amtrak's Downeaster is optimistic that up to $39 million in federal stimulus money will be awarded for a long-awaited expansion of the Boston-to-Portland passenger rail service farther north to Freeport and Brunswick.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority and Maine Department of Transportation hope to receive word as soon as next month whether the proposal will win a share of $8 billion in stimulus money set aside for rail projects.
Environmental studies already have been completed and the rail agency has agreements with the operator, Amtrak, and the track's owner, PanAm Railways. The project would carry a big economic impact in Brunswick, where the Navy air base is closing, and in Freeport, the busy shopping mecca.
"It seems like a slam dunk to me. But I'm in Portland, Maine, not Washington, D.C. So we're keeping our fingers crossed," said Patricia Quinn, the rail authority's executive director.
Two separate proposals for $36 million and $39 million would tap into the federal money set aside for high speed and passenger rail service, but the two proposals follow different timetables. The fast-tracked version calls for work to be completed on the 30-mile stretch within two years, she said.
Expanding to Brunswick has been a goal since the Downeaster began service eight years ago Tuesday. State funding dried up, but rail officials continued to advance the idea as the Downeaster became established, said Nate Moulton, rail transportation manager at Maine Department of Transportation.
Over time, the Downeaster has proven to be one of Amtrak's best performers even though passenger volume is down 7 percent this year because of the economy.
In a separate proposal, the rail authority is seeking $52 million for track improvements between Portland and Plaistow, N.H., as part of an effort to boost the speed of the train and make it possible to increase the number of round trips between Portland and Boston from five to seven.
That proposal would shave another 10 to 12 minutes of travel time off the trip from Portland to Boston, making the service even more competitive, Moulton said.
The Obama administration's $8 billion, which is part of $64 billion in the stimulus package for roads, bridges, rail and transit, set off a scramble in April.
President Barack Obama said the money is a down payment to improve existing services while looking toward a goal of establishing high-speed rail service across the country. The only U.S. rail service that meets the Federal Railroad Administration's 110 mph threshold to qualify as high-speed rail is Amtrak's 9-year-old Acela Express route, which connects Boston to Washington, D.C.
Wayne Davis from TrainRiders/Northeast, a rail advocacy group, said the Obama administration has been a breath of fresh air for railroad enthusiasts.
"It's the first time there's been an administration that has been bold enough to even say the words 'passenger rail.' It's been a long time,'" he said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he hoped final decisions would be announced next month. All told the Federal Railroad Administration received more than 250 grant proposals totaling more than $57 billion, far outstripping the available funds, said Warren Flatau, FRA spokesman in Washington.
Regardless of the outcome, the 30-mile expansion to Brunswick will move forward, Quinn and Moulton said.
If the grant is denied, the state still plans to move forward with the Brunswick project through loans from Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing, they said.
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