We happened to find ourselves in an old record shop (remember what they are?) last week, and came across what we suggest should be the Theme Music for NNEPRA’s handling of the Downeaster Portland North Service Expansion Project.
We listened to both sides, and we liked their beat. And we think you can dance to both.
Don’t believe us? Look at these AAB’ers proving it, in their earlier days, we presume.
We were stimulated to think in this direction because of a thought piece we received from our Transport Professional friend, George Betke:
Representatives of “All Aboard Brunswick,” the local cheerleading affiliate of passenger-rail advocacy group TrainRiders/Northeast, regularly attend the public sessions of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority board meetings. Their recent agenda has focused on support of the 52,000-square-foot maintenance and layover facility proposed to be situated off Church Street to provide irrefutable evidence that the presence of Amtrak “Downeaster” service to Brunswick does in fact stimulate real estate development.
That industrial building, originally estimated to cost $12.7-million, would enable indoor overnight storage of three full four- or five-car train sets, such that a third daily round trip could be added to the present Brunswick-Boston schedule. The obsession with spending taxpayer money on a luxury enjoyed in few other places begs the question, “What evidence is there of demand for additional service?” A NNEPRA official actually has stated a goal of running six daily turns to Brunswick, making it the small-town railroad capital of all New England.
How about first producing more riders for the two existing trips in each direction before making another major financial commitment to more trains? Proponents are fond of citing the fact that ridership “exceeded projections by 50%” in the first two years of operation without noting that the bar was set very low. Combined patronage for Freeport and Brunswick was forecast at 36,000, an average of roughly 100 daily passengers, or just 25 per train. That’s half the capacity of an inter-city motor coach, which doesn’t require a dedicated single-purpose infrastructure.
After nearly three years of testing potential demand, the “Downeaster” route extension to Freeport and Brunswick seems to be leveling out at about 120 daily riders, predominantly at Brunswick. Because of the Boston-oriented schedule, at least two-thirds use the 7:05 a.m. morning departure and the 8:20 p.m. evening arrival. The second, off-peak train is very lightly patronized. Why would additional off-hours trips be expected to expand the market rather than further diluting the average number of riders per train? How much would the “AAB” crowd be willing to spend (in capital and subsidy) to assure that folks would have a choice of six times to depart for Boston and return?
NNEPRA pays operator Amtrak by the trip, regardless of the number of passengers aboard. The need therefore is for a higher average count per train, not a lower one. Can “AAB” contend with a straight face that six trains would attract three times the ridership of the present two?
Betke’s piece caused us to review some things. First, the most recent number publicized for the Brunswick MLF is $13.8 million, though we understand from the NNEPRA web site that the contract price has not been finalized. Second, NNEPRA’s 2015 TIGER Grant Cycle Application, submitted earlier this year, says the estimated cost of the Royal Junction Siding needed to “optimize” the Portland North Service is $8.5 million. You can find the info here: TIGER 7 Grant Application - Royal Junction Siding Project | Amtrak Downeaster
Those two numbers add up to $22.3 Million, a rather princely sum, even in these days of printing money when it suits our needs. We’re confident the REAL costs will be substantially higher, but this is big enough to make our point. That point being $22.3 million to do WHAT???
“Portland North” service consists of service to Freeport and Brunswick. Betke, in his note above, estimates this service is carrying about 120 riders a day, or an average of 30 per train. Considering the average rider goes round/trip, this amounts to effectively carrying 60 riders per day, the majority at Brunswick.
We have some data of our own:
You can see our takeaway; even before the numerous problems with track repair this year, an average of 34 riders per day travel between Brunswick and ALL points to the south. And for Freeport, an average of 10 (rounded) per day travel between that shopping mecca and ALL points to the south. And no one can prove that these are new travelers, instead of travelers diverted from using other alternatives (auto, bus).
When we think of spending $22.3 million to support this ridership, we can only ask what it is NNEPRA, AAB, and the others who support this idea are thinking? Even allowing for excessive Kool-Aid consumption. But perhaps there’s another conclusion.
We note from NNEPRA Board Meeting minutes that AAB members frequently attend those meetings, including the Dunbars, the Knoxes, soon to be town Councilor Alison Harris, and our frequent detractor Ms. Boochever (“the Booch.”) Which, oddly enough, rhymes with “pooch…”
So in all earnestness, we hereby call upon said AAB members to respond to Side with an explanation of how they can justify the expenditure of $22.3 million (not including ongoing operating deficits) in public moneys to make capital improvements for slightly over half a busload of riders between Brunswick and points south on a daily basis. They might even enlist the assistance of the loyal supporters currently sitting on the town council. You/we/they know who they are. We’ll publish their offering here.
They can probably ignore the Freeport riders, because most will likely shift to the Metro Bus once it begins service (http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2015/10/all-aboard-freeportbut-not-on-downeaster.html)
If the carriage set finds it unseemly to submit to our picayune publication, we’re sure The Ostrich would be glad to run their explanation for area wide consumption and edification.
Either way, we think it’s incumbent upon them to forthrightly address The Other Side of what appears to be a wholly unwarranted and wasteful plan.
Oh…and one more thing: we read in the NNEPRA Board Minutes that NNEPRA’s 2016 budget calls for $9.658 million in operating revenue against $22.575 million in total operating expenses, for a projected operating deficit of nearly $13 million, or 57% plus.
So you can understand why nobody involved thinks spending $22.3 million in capital to ‘optimize’ Brunswick Service is a big deal.