Friday, April 17, 2015

Whither goest ‘the end of the line?’

So, you might reasonably ask, just where IS “the end of the line?”  Especially for those who think the automobile needs to disappear, and passenger rail has to come to the rescue.

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https://www1.maine.gov/mdot/utilities/pdf/railmap.pdf

Maybe the BRA (Brunswick Reality Association) can answer the question with a couple of bullet points.

Passenger Rail Expansion: Should it signal ‘the end of the line’ for a Brunswick MLF?

                         

How many times have we heard Patsy Quinn, Executive Director of NNEPRA, insist that Brunswick is the only possible and acceptable location for the planned $20 million Amtrak Maintenance and Layover Facility (MLF)?  NNEPRA, you should recall, is the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, an agency of Maine State Government, and it operates the Downeaster service that currently runs between Boston and Brunswick.

Her rationale is that the MLF decidedly belongs at ‘the end of the line.’  Which Brunswick currently is.  Just as Boston is the other ‘end of the line.’

We’re not railroad professionals, nor transportation professionals in any sense.  Still, our gut instinct is that such facilities don’t belong at the ends of a service route, but should instead be at an intermediate juncture.  Like Portland in this case.  Portland/South Portland had a chance to have this facility located there, but as we hear it, fought to see that didn’t happen.  So much so that Ed Suslovic, a Portland City Councilor, appeared at the DEP hearing on March 25th to speak in favor of the SWPA, hoping to see, we suppose, there would be not a smidgeon of a chance that the subject be reopened.  We found his appearance strange and telling, to understate things.

We think of how the airlines usually arrange things around hubs; like spokes on a wheel.  Putting the MLF at the ‘end of the line’ in Brunswick means it can only be accessed from one direction, where if it was in Portland, say, it could be accessed from the North and the South.  Wouldn’t this allow more arrival and departure flexibility, and easier assignment of operating assets?

We wonder what railroad professionals think about NNEPRA’s planning here.  We’re going to see if we can’t get a couple to chime in on this.

For our discussion tonight, though, it doesn’t matter much, because we have another point to make.

It’s that Quinn’s foundational concept of Brunswick being ‘the end of the line’ appears very squishy.

TrainRiders Northeast, the group that exists solely to lobby on all things Downeaster, including trying to impose their will on the selection of NNEPRA Board members, has an expansionist view of Downeaster service and routes.

As we’ve told you before, their ‘pro bono’ attorney looked at us when he told legislators that they “are not lobbyists, but The Downeaster would not exist without us.”  Maybe they’d feel better if we labeled them hobbyists instead of lobbyists.  Truth be known, they’re a combination of both.

As to their goals for expansion, and their egos, take a look at this item from their web site; keep in mind that track improvements run in the vicinity of $1 million or more per mile.  Equipment upgrades?  You could get to $100 million before the cock crows.

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It was posted in March of last year, as part of their reporting for a NNEPRA public meeting, which they described thusly:

NNEPRA Holds Pubic Forum on Improving Downeaster Service

Published on Tuesday, 11 March 2014 13:54
Written by TRN Webmaster

            DE-Plan

NNEPRA held a public meeting on Wednesday (March 19th) to discuss the Amtrak Downeaster Service Development Plan. It was a well-attended public forum that focused on extending Downeaster service to Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta and beyond New England to New York City.

TrainRiders/Northeast spoke in support of multiple extensions, particularly an effort to connect Maine through Worcester to Penn Station in New York, where a whole new market for travel to and from Maine awaits.

Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of NNEPRA, answered the many questions regarding currently needed improvements (double tracking, speed and frequency of service) as well as new feeder services to the Brunswick-Boston core of the current Downeaster.

Image result for nnepra

It’s curious, obviously, how TRNE could report on March 11th of the discussions at a forum held on March 19th.  Unless you subscribe to the theory that TRNE scripts things for NNEPRA.  We wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that, but perhaps they’d like to proof-read their postings in the future to avoid creating such impressions.

Now they’re soliciting inputs on where Downeaster expansion should be prioritized.  Here’s a screen shot of that effort:

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Throw in the Maine Rail Group and the other advocacy groups pushing for passenger rail to Bangor and other distant stops in Maine, and you’ve got a scenario that says 1) If NNEPRA, TRNE, and the rest have their way, passenger rail service in Maine is in its infancy, and 2) Brunswick most assuredly will not be a terminus for the service.

Which begs the question whether this should not be sufficient reason to declare that plans for a huge industrial facility in Brunswick have reached ‘the end of the line.’

Because NNEPRA’s rationale for locating it here are clearly not consistent with their expansionist plans, and will in all likelihood result in an underused, poorly accessible, and wrongly located facility at great taxpayer expense.

           Image result for white elephants

At least that’s the way it looks in view of everything we’re seeing and hearing.  And we don’t think wearing sunglasses will keep the white elephant away.

The best way to do that is to not have him come to town in the first place.  Look for love in some other place, to riff on an earlier theme.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Post Script on “what happened to the Downeaster?”

             An Amtrak engine, right, pushes the disabled Downeaster back to the Portland Transportation Center after the passenger train derailed Tuesday.

Two days ago, we posted this little item remarking about how the talk of five daily round trips between Boston and Brunswick had, without any fanfare, changed to three daily round trips.

No doubt some, most likely those in AAB, the local booster group for the Downeaster, were saying we made that up; that we were just imagining it.  Au contraire, mademoiselles.

We were dubbing around just a bit ago, as is our wont, when we ran across the passages just below in the Grant Application Narrative for the Downeaster Service Optimization Project submitted by NNEPRA less than a year ago (April 25, 2014).  This was their third try at a TIGER Grant, and if you’re a Red Sox fan given to baseball metaphors, it resulted in a called strike three.

Maximum ridership/revenue growth and cost effectiveness can be achieved when improvements are made to facilitate the operation of all five daily round-trips to operate between Brunswick and Boston daily.

The Downeaster Service Optimization Project includes three project elements with independent utility which will collectively enable all five Downeaster trains to serve Freeport and Brunswick.  This will improve financial and operational efficiency of the Downeaster service, increase connectivity and mobility, support public and private development initiatives which create jobs and generate tourism and contribute to the long term sustainability of the economy and the environment.

Current track capacity constraints between Portland and Brunswick limit the Downeaster to only six one-way trips on that segment daily. Schedule string-lines indicate that if all five round-trips were operated between Brunswick and Boston daily, passenger train meets would take place west of Royal Junction, where the Brunswick Branch separates from the freight main line.

The construction of a second main track, extending approximately four miles west from Royal Junction, will provide the capacity necessary to allow all five daily
Downeaster round-trips to operate on that segment.

The two additional round-trips are expected to generate approximately 40,150 more Downeaster riders and $843,000 in revenue annually, and reduce net system
operating costs by $.55 per train mile.

Fully expanded service (five round-trips daily) between Brunswick and Boston will eliminate the need for crew ground transport and redundant train servicing operations for trips which may begin in Brunswick but terminate in
Portland or vise versa. This will save labor and mechanical costs while increasing mobility and supporting economic growth in the region. Pan Am Railways has provided engineering plans for a passing siding at Royal Junction and has agreed to permit the operation of five daily round-trip Downeaster trains between Portland and Brunswick upon its completion.

Emphasis in the above passages, as usual, is our own.  Funny how the goal line keeps moving, and how no-one in the AAB is making any noise about this.  It may mean that the current service will be far more crowded than expected, making it even harder to get tickets for destinations down south.  You probably read that the train that derailed two days ago had 36 souls on board, out of a capacity of over 250 or so.  Shouldn’t this have been a prime train for folks heading to Boston for ‘dinner and a show’ or other cultural attractions?  If so, why was it not even at 20% of capacity, especially since spring conditions should inspire folks to break out of their cabins and indulge their wanderlust.

No wonder folks in Brunswick can’t get tickets, right?  At least that’s the popular story line.

                

If you can’t get a ticket to ride, you may just have to bite your tongue and stay home.

       

Or now that spring actually seems to be here, you could get outside and work the farm.  Please.

Get out of town
Before it's too late, my love
Get out of town
Be good to me, please

Why wish me harm
Why not retire to a farm
And be content to charm
The birds off the trees

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What happened to the Downeaster?

Silly you….you probably think this post will be about the derailing that occurred just outside the Portland Transportation Center this afternoon.

An Amtrak engine, right, pushes the disabled Downeaster back to the Portland Transportation Center after the passenger train derailed Tuesday.

An Amtrak engine, right, pushes the disabled Downeaster back to the Portland Transportation Center after the passenger train derailed Tuesday. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

http://www.pressherald.com/2015/04/14/downeaster-derails-in-portland-no-injuries-reported/

But you’d be wrong; we’re not like that.  Instead, it’s about something that just occurred to us.

Seems like for well more than a year, the happy-happy talk about constructing an Amtrak Maintenance and Layover Facility (MLF) in the Bouchard Drive neighborhood of Brunswick is that it would miraculously allow the service to expand to five (count ‘em five!!!) round trips per day servicing Brunswick.  Civilized transport would finally come to the backwoods of Maine!

Somewhere along the line (get it?), this changed to three round trips a day.  We don’t recall any press release or other official notice that the end goal was being changed from three round trips per day instead of five, but there it is.

So we’re just asking what happened while we were out having breakfast.  Or out to lunch, as the case may be.

Because when you come right down to it, we already have three round trips a day servicing Brunswick.  It’s not our fault NNEPRA doesn’t sell tickets on two of the legs of those round trips.  And it’s not our fault that their scheduling doesn’t seem to support bragging rights on the subject.  We fail to see how the arguments being advanced for the service and the facility hold water, Frank.

But we’re more than willing to await the explanations of All Aboard Brunswick and the others who want more ways to “get out of town, before it’s too late my love.”

If all they’re looking for is more exciting ways to spend their money, can’t Brunswick (hello, BDA!) come up with more ways for them to spend it right here at home?

     

Maybe we need a little rail loop that circles the town without leaving it, so rail-fans can enjoy the romance without looking for love in all the wrong places.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

DEP Hearing Report

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This was the view that greeted us as we arrived at Brunswick Golf Course on Wednesday, March 25th, for the all day marathon that was the DEP hearing on NNEPRA’s Stormwater Permit Application (SWPA.)  Fitting optics, we thought, though we’re puzzled as to why our greeter wasn’t showing any “All Aboard Brunswick” logo-wear.  Perhaps he didn’t pass muster with the standard bearers for that organization.

                          

Speaking of optics, Wayne Davis, the man who built the Downeaster service with his own hands, and to this day heads TrainRiders Northeast, was nowhere in evidence at the hearing.  Less than two weeks earlier, he was his camera seeking self, following the Augusta GOC committee meeting that voted unanimously to have OPEGA investigate NNEPRA.  Nor has he been seen at any of the several events since then that would normally summons his countenance to public view.

We can’t help but wonder whether the OPEGA vote hasn’t had a chilling effect on his public activities, and dampened his enthusiasm for on camera platitudes and banalities.  There are other possible explanation, we’re sure, but none have surfaced.  Not even on his usually reverential web site.  We won’t go so far as to suggest that our greeter was the man himself in theatrical disguise.

By the way, at one of the later NNEPRA related hearings in Augusta, TRNE’s attorney looked over at your correspondent and stated to the Transportation Committee that “we are not lobbyists for NNEPRA, but the Downeaster would not exist without us.”

Moving on, one of the first reports on the hearing was this one published by TRNE itself, which as you might expect, is a marvel of detached neutrality.

=======================================================================

Marathon DEP Hearing on NNEPRA's Storm Water Runoff Permit

Published on Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:07

It was an all-day event as the DEP held extensive sessions on NNEPRA's Storm Water Runoff Permit request. The permit is required for the construction of the Downeaster's Brunswick Layover Facility. It began at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 8:00 p.m. (with some lunch/dinner breaks). This was the first such public hearing the DEP has ever organized for this type of permit.

   DEPpan

The evening public session, held at the Brunswick Golf Club, brought out nearly two hundred advocates - against and for the permit. Those against feared disruption of their neighborhood due to alleged pollution and flooding and those in favor disputed their fears and emphasized the economic benefits of the expansion.

DEPFour

=====================================================================

This is terribly inaccurate and self-serving reporting by Bill Lord, the TRNE ‘webmaster.’  Especially in the passage we highlighted above.  You’ll learn more about that shortly.  Lord’s reporting here only adds more tarnish to the reputation of ‘broadcast network news,’ the field in which we understand he spent his career.  We believe he even claims Dan Rather as a colleague.  The observation above is consistent with Rather’s revealed integrity.

======================================================================

A similar view of the event was provided by our friend Emily Boochever, a principal of “All Aboard Brunswick,” the group that encourages local area residents to ride the train and enjoy themselves unloading discretionary dollars at various points in the southerly direction.  Known around town as ‘the Booch,’ Emily filed this report in The Ostrich on April 8:

Sounding off on stormwater

Members of the public did sound off on NNEPRA’s stormwater management permit application at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) public hearing held in Brunswick on March 25. They also sounded off in 78 written comments on the proposed Brunswick Layover Facility (BLF), which were submitted to the DEP and posted on the Department’s website at http://www.maine.gov/dep/ftp/BLF/Written%20comments

The great majority of the commenters emphatically support the construction of the layover facility. Brunswick accounted for the greatest number of comments, but Harpswell, Topsham, Yarmouth, and Portland writers also made their views known.

Yes, the Booch is right.  Members of the public did sound off.  Those opposed to granting the SWPA permit scrupulously followed spoken and written guidelines and directives for testimony, your correspondent among them.  Those in favor of granting the permit assiduously avoided guidelines and directives, and instead, wallowed in emotional support for the concept of passenger rail and its magical but completely unsubstantiated benefits.

How can we make such claims?  Because we were there, and because we’ve read each and every one of the written comments Boochever refers to above.  And because we’re aware of, and understand, the directives regarding comment that DEP formally issued before the hearing, and reiterated during their opening guidance at the hearing.  No matter; when you love the train like a warm puppy, none of the usual rules apply.

But just so you know, here are the rules as published (emphasis ours):

From DEP Release dated March 16, 2015:

The purpose of the hearing is to receive testimony from the parties and the general public on whether the proposed project meets the relevant statutory and regulatory licensing requirements. The statutory and regulatory criteria associated with the Department’s review of this license application are: Storm Water Management law (38 M.R.S.A. § 420-D) and the Department’s rules concerning Stormwater Management (Chapter 500). Testimony at the hearing is limited specifically to the relevant licensing criteria (stormwater standards, including, but not limited to, basic, general, and flooding standards). An outline describing the relevant regulatory review criteria associated with the proposed project is available on the Department’s website at www.maine.gov/dep/permits/blf/ in the document, “Second Procedural Order and attachments.”

=====================

From Chapter 3 of Rules governing the conduct of licensing hearings, Page 17 Section 20:

20. Evidence

A. Relevancy. Evidence will be admitted if it is relevant and material to the subject matter of the hearing and is of a kind upon which reasonable persons are accustomed to rely in the conduct of serious affairs. Evidence which is irrelevant, immaterial or unduly repetitious will be excluded. The Department’s experience, technical expertise, and specialized knowledge may be utilized in the evaluation of all evidence.

======================

From the Second Procedural Order, dated January 13, 2015:

image

=============================

In short, per DEP pronouncements, testimony/comments would be accepted only on the specifics of the SWPA itself. Comments and/or testimony in support of passenger rail service, Amtrak, the Downeaster, NNEPRA, the proposed MLF, or on any other non-SWPA subject, would be out of order and should not be entertained in any form, written or spoken.

Here’s one example of public testimony given, as reported in the press:

"The (layover facility) is critical for our region," Margot Knight of Page Street said.  "More frequent (train) service is in high demand, and we need the layover facility in order to supply it."

You couldn’t find a better example of how non-complicit the permit ‘supporters’ were with the clearly stated and formally delivered rules of hearing conduct.

Devoted informants that we are, your correspondent has diligently reviewed the 70 plus letters referred to by Boochever.  We’re pretty sure anyone who spoke in support of the permit, and who also had a letter posted in advance, simply read their letter at the hearing, or damn close to it.

Here’s our tally of those posted letters (emails.)  All but three spoke of how they love the train and want the MLF built where proposed.  None of these addressed specifics of the permit application, other than to say ‘please approve the permit.’  Several spoke of NIMBY influences, and politics entering the fray.  None, zero, offered specific data to support economic benefits provided by the train, though 29, by our count, contained glib assertions that it does.  There were numerous examples of common language, indicating suggested text had been promulgated, and dutifully parroted by the faithful.

Twenty-four, on the other hand, gave specific examples, some emphatically so, of how they take the train south for a variety of purposes that all have economic value for their destinations.  A number of these were emphatic on the issue, mentioning frequent trips south (as many as 100.)  If we were a bit more diligent, we’d strip all these passages out for a subsequent follow up post on our invitation to participate in a nascent economic study.

Of the three remaining posted items, two spoke against approving the SWPA, and the last was a letter from your correspondent, formally objecting to lack of compliance with DEP rules referenced above.  You can read that letter here: http://www.maine.gov/dep/ftp/BLF/Written%20comments/Letter%20to%20Bill%20Bullard%20commenting%20on%20received%20public%20%20%27testimony%20%27.pdf

It includes comments on the individual letters that had been posted to that date.  We filed a similar letter to DEP Commissioner Aho asking for diligent enforcement of the published rules.  Anyone who attended the public hearing knows that while the rules were mentioned at the start, they were not enforced once the public began speaking.

As an attorney and principal of AAB, we believe Boochever had an obligation to be fully cognizant of published rules, and to counsel her followers accordingly.  She should have, but she didn’t. 

She decided it was acceptable to flaunt the rules of procedure that had been set.

A friend of the court?  We don’t think so, pilgrim.  But when you think about it, her behavior is a good match for Bill Lord’s lack of journalistic integrity.

=======================================================================

On a related note, TRNE waxed rhapsodic about how their attorney challenged the directly related evidence of a railroad professional and had some of it excluded from spoken testimony.  At the same time, the testimony of AAB and TRNE supporters was all in conflict with the published and reiterated rules for the hearing.

     Image result for i coulda been somebody

We should note that Town Councilors Jane Millett, John Perreault, and Kathy Wilson spoke at the hearing.  Councilors Millett and Perreault demonstrated admirable political courage by expressing concern about permit approval, while Councilor Wilson sided with the horde of sticker wearing AAB’ers.

               Image result for i coulda been somebody

Playing off the image just above, we’ll close on what we think of as an entertaining note.  Claudia Knox, AAB and BDA principal, rose to speak, stating that she wanted to deliver the testimony of John “Johnny Protocols” Richardson, who could not attend the hearing because of other commitments.  Funny how often that happens with him; we won’t say it has anything to do with politics, because that would be a cheap shot.

               

We will go so far, however, to say the above is a lovely symbolic portrayal of Johnny telling Claudia and the Booch that he wouldn't be able to attend the hearing.

        

And so he asks Claudia to deliver his remarks.  Claudia approached the podium and described her mission, which drew an immediate objection from the hearing officer, who said that if he couldn’t be present to respond to questions about his testimony, it couldn’t be presented.  Oh the inhumanity, the injustice!

We have every confidence that Claudia was about to read Johnny P’s previously submitted letter, though we can’t be certain:

image

Another salient passage is this:

image

Nice try by the would be Governor of Brunswick, but out of the 1800 previous applications submitted to the DEP, we imagine that virtually none were submitted by other agencies of Maine State Government.  We think that calls for an extra measure of concern for the public trust, lest ‘politics’ be involved.  Or insider ties.

                                      

Which leaves us to relegate Johnny’s offering to some other purpose.

======================================================================

For those of you who might be interested, here’s the testimony we prepared for delivery at the hearing.  Naif that we are, we skipped much of the content in our live delivery, attempting to comply with the time pressure expressed by the hearing officer.  We expect we were the only one; how little we know, how much to discover.

====================================

Good evening. I'm Pem Schaeffer; I've lived in Brunswick for 18 years. I'm a retired engineer with two advanced degrees. I spent my career at a high tech company specializing in complex systems.

I live about two miles from the proposed construction site, in a coastal protection zone, and we get our water from wells on our own property, and process household waste water with septic systems on the same property.

My initial comments on this application are these:

  • The applicant is the State of Maine. NNEPRA is an agency of state government; there is a public trust urgency to this application that rises well above the norm.

  • The Application is critically inadequate; both pre-filed testimony and public comment have addressed the multiple, serious deficiencies.

  • The Application and supporting documents provide no objective plans for measurement of existing or future pollutant loads, or analysis of their impacts.

  • Too many unknowns plague the proposal, making it impossible to ensure that catastrophic consequences will not follow from construction and operational use of the facility. These afflict not only known service and equipment planning, but the unbounded consequences of vastly expanded service to new destinations, and the equipment and service increases they will necessitate.

  • Lastly, as others have described, prior activities on the proposed and adjacent sites, coupled with natural complexities, create unique and arduous challenges that cannot be cost effectively mitigated while honoring the public trust.

An Analogy For Consideration:

  • I think of this project as a giant industrial septic system.

  • I've owned and lived with a septic system for nearly 18 years, and am solely responsible for its operation and maintenance. Technically speaking, this is an on site sewage facility, a waste-water system to treat and dispose of effluent on the property that produces it. The design is a function of the number of persons reasonably expected to use it on a regular basis.

  • The major differences between the system under consideration here and the system at my home are these:

    • The proposed design must process highly toxic industrial waste products; my system handles only organic waste.

    • No quantitative limits on the amount of waste can be derived, because an operations plan and limits on loading are not specified.

    • The “leach field” is of vast size and consequence, well beyond the constraints of an engineered residential field. And well beyond the site on which the facility would be constructed and operate.

    • Significantly, NNEPRA has not yet applied for actual permits to discharge to the Brunswick Sewer District, including human sewage, drip pan and oil-water separator contents, or excess dewatering volume. An addendum provides additional details.

Operating and Maintenance Concerns:

  • Making matters worse, ownership and accountability for the short term and long term performance of this “septic system” is clouded by unclear reporting and operating responsibility, and muddled lines of authority.

  • In the final analysis, the designer, owner, and operator of this system will be the State of Maine; this is not a private enterprise project.

    • The State of Maine means all of you, all of us in this room, and everyone else who lives in Maine and pays taxes to operate our government. The public trust issue must be paramount in your decision process.

  • The application does not specify what operations and procedures will take place on the property, nor the frequency and number of each. Nor does it guarantee what railroad-related operations and procedures will not take place on the site, and who guarantees they won't.

    • The chain of command for response to spills and other emergencies is not clearly presented in the Application. This is a serious deficiency regarding implementation of good housekeeping practices.

  • A reporting matrix for both non-recurring and recurring aspects of this project is absent. Clear delineation of responsibility for all aspects of its planned useful life, and a single point of accountability to take the infamous “3 am phone call” are missing.

    • Notwithstanding they haven't been provided, who will ensure that short term and long term operating limits are not exceeded?

    • Who will be responsible for responding to and correcting malfunctions, overloads, and other operating problems? Where does the buck stop, not who is the contractor to call?

    • Who will maintain and monitor the operation of the facility, and how will they do so? How will it be inspected; by whom; and how often?

  • Of great concern is the planning and advocacy for service expansion to New York City, Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Rockland, Quebec, and who knows where else. How will these expansions in service and equipment multiply environmental consequences through vastly increased operations and maintenance?

Conclusion:

  • Making use of my analogy, concerns come down to this:

    • How many figurative “bedrooms and bathrooms” will this facility encompass?

    • How are town residents going to know when this giant “septic system” is not performing as promised? What will be the signs and symptoms? Will they be immediately apparent, or only become evident when discovered through long term effects on people, their health, and the environment?

    • “Who we gonna call” when things don't go according to the promises made, and the system malfunctions?

  • This case is unique; it's not a private enterprise initiative. Ultimately, the applicant and responsible party is the State of Maine, and it alone bears all liability exposure.

  • Clearly, excessive unknowns plague this challenging and complex proposal, any of which could invalidate a decision to approve. The most worrisome unknown of all is an increase in operating and maintenance tempos caused by future service and equipment expansions.

    • Simply put, if you don’t know the specifics and quantity of what you're dealing with, how can you possibly design systems to deal with it?

  • In light of the opposing points presented, my strong belief is that this Storm Water Permit Application is fatally flawed, and should be summarily denied.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Other Side Alert: Kool-Aid flooding inundates local communities; authorities delerious. Stains everywhere; clean up could be a sticky mess.

Judging from recent news reports, the Kool-Aid train is busy making stops all over the state.  Unfortunately, as best we can tell, it’s been leaking its load wherever it goes.  In the past months, stops have been made in Lewiston-Auburn, Augusta, Rockland, and Bangor.

Now we read that the Kool-Aid special has been to Waterville.  The article appears here.

WATERVILLE — City Councilor Sydney Mayhew says he will do everything in his power to see that passenger rail service returns to Waterville.

It may take several years for a study to be done, approvals granted, funding secured and rail service established, but Mayhew, who represents Ward 4 wants to start the ball rolling now.

        Waterville City Council Chairman Fred Stubbert stands on railroad track where the passenger railroad station used to be in Waterville along Colby Street on Thursday. The City Council will discuss a resolution to restore passenger service.

Waterville City Council Chairman Fred Stubbert stands on railroad track where the passenger railroad station used to be in Waterville along Colby Street on Thursday. The City Council will discuss a resolution to restore passenger service.

He drafted a resolution declaring the city’s intent to explore the benefits of passenger rail service and will seek the endorsement of fellow councilors at Tuesday night’s council meeting. Augusta councilors approved a similar resolution in December.

“I think it would be beneficial for Waterville to show its hand on this issue and participate in an obvious economic development opportunity,” he said. “We know what passenger rail service can do from studies of when it went from Portland to Brunswick. It has promoted, really, economic vitality in that area. The city of Brunswick is reaping the benefits. Just imagine what it’d be like for Waterville residents or residents of Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield and Oakland to see a Boston Bruins or Celtics game, or for a family to go to visit Boston. Plus, it would be an attraction to the college sites here in Waterville.”

What astounds us is that Waterville officials appear to know more about the ‘economic vitality benefits’ Brunswick is reaping than those of us here in Brunswick know.  We continue to relate that Brunswick officials (and unofficials) have steadfastly dug in their heels when it comes to offering up credible, objective proof of such gains. 

All the anecdotal evidence we have in hand suggests just the opposite is true; Brunswick is shipping out the economic stimulus of numerous residents to shower upon points further south.  We’ve reported on some of that, and will do more on the subject soon.  You know as well that we’ve solicited inputs from the community on the subject, to which there has been “sparse” response so far, where sparse is a very small number approaching zero.

Now the same paper has waxed editorially on the subject, apparently having had the Kool-Aid flood reach their offices:

THUMBS UP to the Waterville City Council for approving unanimously a resolution to explore the benefits of bringing passenger rail service back to the city.

The resolution, similar to one passed by Augusta councilors late last year, is one small step in the effort to return rail service to the region, a process that will include many steps and take years, if not decades, to complete. The line would first have to be extended from Portland to the Lewiston-Auburn area before continuing north through Augusta and Waterville, and possibly along to Montreal eventually.

The road may be long, but the economic and environmental benefit could be enormous. Rail service would take cars off the road, cutting down on carbon emissions as well as wear and tear on the roads. As Brunswick and other areas have shown, rail service can spur significant business development, particularly around stations.

A number of bills are before the Legislature now that could help make expanded passenger rail service a reality, including a promising idea that would allow communities along a rail line to work together to capture taxes created by rail development in order to maximize economic returns.

Those bills should get support this year, but it also is important that the communities along the projected rail line, including Augusta and Waterville, strongly state their interest in developing the service.

So the economic and environmental benefit could be ‘enormous.’  They must use a different dictionary up there than we do down here.  And they again know more about ‘business development’ around stations than we do in our little close to the vest community.  Capturing taxes; maximizing economic returns.  How can anyone turn that down?

We doubt you noticed the words above that throw the entire issue of Downeaster Maintenance and Layover Facility location in Brunswick into question.

NNEPRA has repeatedly insisted that the MLF belongs at ‘the end of the line.’  The consequences of the service expansions suggested above are that the ‘end of the line’ would be in Waterville, or sacre bleu, in Montreal!

On the other hand, why not build $20 million layover facilities at the end of every spur?  We think Waterville deserves the honor of a monstrous industrial facility at least as much as Brunswick does, and we hope they have an in-town neighborhood ready to welcome one.

                                   

Refills anyone?

It’s Friday afternoon you know, the impetus for the original happy hour.

We’re just wondering how the Kool-Aid bars will be able to stay in business if the happy-hour has to last for years and years.  Maybe they’ll be able to get state and federal subsidies for keeping drivers off the streets.

On pay per bag, fairness, bike lanes, and oh-yes…fee per ticket.

       

How long has it been now that the perfect little town has had ‘pay per bag’ trash collection?  We suppose it could already be 10 years, or even more.

The better angels of fairness, you may recall, brought this upon us, with lengthy lectures on how it was only fair for those who make the greatest use of a service to pay more than those who use less of the service.  And so it was that the beautiful people of community pride and righteousness decided that yea, verily, pay per bag would be our eternal plight.

                                Image result for smelling salts for fainting

Some in town, your correspondent among them, had the downright unmitigated gall to suggest that if pay per use is fair, it should be more widely employed.  And so we suggested that pay per book be instituted at the library.  Talk about double standards of fairness!  The local supply of smelling salts flew off the shelves.

 

Brunswick’s municipal matrons were beside themselves.  “Well I never….” was heard everywhere.  It turns out, we discovered, that fairness can only be applied in those cases approved by the unappointed guardians of civic righteousness.

Chastened we were, but some lessons don’t stick with you for life.

We’ve posted of late on the upcoming budget season and the likely outlook for our adjustable rate property taxes.  And we noted how elected officials are showing their fiscal restraint bright and early by expressing strong concern about the question of spending $1,500 on a bike lane for Federal Street.  (Don’t tell anyone we said this, but around The McLellan and Hawthorne School, $1,500 is known as ‘chump change.’)

We figure if the leaders in charge of our fiscal future have serious concerns about $1,500, they should be seriously ready to go to the mat for a bigger number….say something on the order of $100,000.

As we understand it, that’s the sum the town forks over for the operation of the Maine Street Station Departure (Visitors) Center.  About half of that is to rent the space, and the other half is for public works to handle snow removal and other tasks associated with the world class platform at the station, associated parking areas, etc.

That works out to an average of about $2,000 per week, or more than the cost of a bike lane on a local major thoroughfare.  We figure that in the spirit of pay per bag trash, there ought to be a way to bring fairness to this situation.

We suggest a fee added to Downeaster Tickets purchased at the station.  We don’t have ridership figures at the ready, but the last time we saw them we remember something like 700 train riders per week at the Brunswick station.  We don’t know how many were visitors who bought their tickets elsewhere, and how many are locals buying their tickets here.  We’re not sure anyone really knows, and if they do know, whether they want to tell us.

Our educated gut hunch is that there are a good deal more of the latter than the former.  Just for grins, let’s go with 500 per week buying their tickets in town.  If that’s the case, adding a $4 per ticket surcharge for station operation should come pretty close to making the ‘center’ self-supporting.  We can always adjust the figure at the end of each year as actuals roll in.

So what say you, Other Siders?   You do support fairness and transport justice, don’t you?

We’re looking for the mavens of All Aboard Brunswick to jump right on board this proposal, and to promote it with all the gusto they can muster.

        

Alllllllll Aboarrrrrrrrrrrd!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

So ask yourself: “self, what if…..?”

                     

Remember that “Thompson era” post we put up Monday?  Maybe not; you’ve probably got lots more important things to remember.  But bear with us just a moment.

Vis-à-vis that post, it occurred to us to wonder where our school budget would be if we hadn’t had a decline of 1,000 students in the last 10 years or so.  Or if we had to suddenly accommodate that influx, returning us to the days of yore, as the usual suspects and highly paid consultants promised we would have to do.

Oh, we’d have to put at least two schools back on line, and hire at least 100 new teachers or so, right?  We could spend a month of Thursdays trying to calculate the up front costs for doing so.  For the moment, though, let’s just do some estimating.

We’re talking about a hypothetical enrolment increase of about 40% to take us back where we were.  So one way to go about this is to pro-rata increase the current budget by 40%: 

$35.6 million X 1.4 = $49.8 million

That’s $14.2 million more than we’re spending now, without factoring in the rumored 10% increase the master of our education domain is looking for in the coming year.

Using the rule of thumb for translating budget increases to tax rates and tax bills, that $14.2 million increase would call for a property tax increase of about 45%.  So if your property tax bill is currently in the $3500 range, you could plan on an increase of about $1600 per year.

Shirley some will say such estimates are absurd.  Do you think so?  Here’s what we find absurd.  When our enrollment was at it’s peak about 10 years ago, we were spending roughly $8,000 per student per school year.  Ten years later, with fewer school plants and far fewer students, we’re spending roughly $15,000 per student per school year. 

Could someone please tell us what performance improvements and value increases have made themselves known in our children's education?  This is an 87% ‘tuition’ increase -  $7,000 per student per year more.  That’s not chicken feed, kiddies.

Here’s a more profound and consequential question: does anyone really think we can sustain an education bureaucracy that exhibits such unconstrained cost growth? 

         

I don’t know why, but somehow, in drafting this post, a certain image came to mind.

Ribbit, ribbit.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Of clarinets, basketballs, and bike lanes

     

If you’ve followed the silliness that is the Brunswick annual budget formulation and approval process, and even more so, followed our coverage of same, you know that shameless demagoguery is de-rigueur.

Total annual expenditures, including both School Department and Municipal functions, are now approaching $60 million.  Or, in round numbers, about $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the town.

The old rule of thumb in advancing the budget is the proven ‘police and firemen’ first ploy.  That is, if public resistance surfaces, threaten to reduce public safety budgets to scare the living bejeezus out of those who dared speak up.  “How dare you put our children, our elderly, our disabled, and our very public identity at risk by questioning public safety spending?!?!!”

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That’s usually enough to silence the critics.  Other ploys in the past have been suggestions that fifth grade band would have to go (clarinets) or that junior varsity athletics (basketballs) in junior high might have to be cut back.

Oh the horror!  To mitigate a big increase in a $50 million budget baseline, our elected leaders come up with a drop in the bucket proposal that opens up the public tear ducts.  History proves that the ploy is almost always successful, because several directly effected taxpayers will show up at the next meeting to protest, swearing they’ll gladly pay whatever more they have to pay in property taxes to make sure the clarinets and basketballs don’t get snatched away from their darling children, to whom these items represent life itself.

This year, it looks like a new kind of fish has been found in local waters.  Witness this item in The Forecaster.

The first item to receive scrutiny was the final proposal for a "sharrow" bike lane on Federal Street.  A "sharrow," also known as a shared lane marking, "simply means there are painted insignias on the road that alert drivers that bicycles are allowed to be riding there," Councilor Kathy Wilson said.

There have been several versions of this proposal over the past two years, and this iteration reflects input from the Brunswick Downtown Association, Town Planning staff, Police Department, and Federal Street residents, among others, according to the Brunswick Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Wilson said Federal Street is the only place in the country where four national bike routes converge on one road.  "(Bicyclists) already use Federal Street a lot," she said. "All this does is make it a little safer."

The project comes with a price tag of $1,350 to cover paint and signs. Town Manager John Eldridge said there are town funds allocated to cover the proposed costs.  In response, Councilor John Perrault noted that "this is a tough budget time," and asked if the advisory committee could possibly raise money for a donation to the town to help fund the project.

No doubt this more than one-thousand dollar item will be at the very core of budget deliberations this year, and we look forward to those who will show up in colorful spandex garb and fashionable helmets to help prioritize local spending.  And it’s always helpful to have a trendy new word to signal a ‘new era for Brunswick being put at risk.’

    Image result for brunswick maine council meetings 

You gotta go with long pole in the tent, as they say.

Doesn’t this just make you giddy with hopes for the coming fiscal year?  Throw in revaluation, and you’ve got a perfect train wreck, more or less.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

An Open Invitation: Other Side Calls for Help With Community Enlightenment

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Here on Other Side, we like to say we have an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  Or as others might suggest, an insatiable thirst.

We try to get to the bottom of any stories we pursue and report on.  We wish we could say we go after the top of the stories, but here in Brunswick, chasing after the facts more often than not leads down, not up.

As you know, in view of the widespread claims by elected and unelected community ‘leaders’ that the Downeaster is a marvelous stimulus to local economic fortunes, we’ve proposed and written about a ‘town-gown’ collaboration to put some serious rigor into determining the veracity of these assertions.  We figure that demonstrable, quantifiable, and carefully documented benefits could only boost support for the already wildly popular passenger service.  Perhaps even drive ridership levels above the current 10% or so average use of capacity, and provide tangible evidence of ‘widespread demands for expanded service.’

For reasons we can’t quite discern, our calls for such objective study have fallen on deaf ears.  Not a single town councilor we approached was willing to go publicly on the record in support of such a proposal.  And our bloviating here and in The Ostrich have similarly yielded a nullity in response.  It must be, we gather, that our suggestion rises far above the level of rocket science, and that necessary skills are simply unavailable in our perfect little town with its perfect highly selective college.

                             

Lucky for us, whether they realize it or not, some members of the local carriage trade have provided useful economic data in the form of their own use of Downeaster service.  We refer to Ms. Alison Johnson and Ambassador Charles Dunbar, who publicly proclaimed their substantial economic activities stimulated by the availability of the Downeaster in Brunswick.   We wrote about their glowing accolades in this recent post: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2015/03/finally-some-serious-economic-data-on.html

We realize that most breakthroughs in human knowledge, such as we hunger for in this instance, often begin with an unrecognized spark of inspiration that arises serendipitously.  We suspect this is what we have before us, and we are more than willing to honor the sparks in this story by naming the new body of knowledge the “Johnson-Dunbar Theory of Passenger Rail Economic Abundance.”

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Keeping with the unselfish expressions offered by Johnson and Dunbar, we come to you tonight to welcome your own personal messages of economic benefit.  Personal or business related, we will carry your testimony here.  While our main purpose is to seek the contributions of each and every individual who has derived economic benefit from the Downeaster, we know a specific organization has been created to formally herald the enormous consequences for our community. 

That organization is ‘All Aboard Brunswick,’ or AAB for shortening.  We suggest again that their choice of names may send the wrong message, but who are we to question the compelling arguments they put forward?

 

Given their unique stature in this profoundly consequential public square discussion, we think this very special, personalized invitation fits the circumstances, and we hope you agree.  It all ties in with their devotion to the precise details of quality of place and placemaking.

So, everyone, how about getting on board and submitting your raw data inputs to our economic data collection process?

Or as they say down south, “y’all come, now, heah?”  If we get enough submissions of substance, we might even approach cognizant officials to see if they’ll sponsor a special train ride for contributors.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Will “the Thompson era” unfold at the Brunswick School Department?

We don’t know about you, but we like to think that the Brunswick School Board is supposed to function as a ‘board of directors’ for the Brunswick School Department.  Similarly, we’re delusional enough to expect the town council should do the same for Municipal Government.  In our conception of such things, the ‘directors’ are there to represent the interests of the ‘stock-holders,’ which translates to residents and taxpayers of Brunswick.

Which among other things, is why we’re considered “Mr. Grumpy” by some of our elected leadership.  And happily so, we must admit, because we take it as a badge of honor.

Enough about our self-absorption.  There’s more than enough in town to satisfy the demand.

The recent general election had a surprising outcome or two.  For our purposes today, we focus on Brunswick School Board results.

               

Pictured above is the swearing in of the most recently elected members, including Sarah Singer, Padre James Grant (judging from his collar,) and Billy Thompson.

We’ve known Billy for some years, and think very highly of him.  At the same time, we can’t help but wonder why an otherwise sane and respectable town resident would submit himself to such punishment.  Let alone offer himself up for the position of Chairman of the School Board.

To each his own, of course, and we’re grateful that Billy would do so, and hopeful that his ascendance to the role might signal a sea change in School Department governance.  Only the shadow knows for sure, and only time will tell, to cite a few trite clichés as is our wont.  Or is it want?

Why?  Because we’ve long believed that our School Department is in need of serious, major reform.  We’ve come to this conclusion after more than 15 years of following town budget deliberations, which are dominated by school department budget specifics.  In the past, we’ve used terms like “the schoolies” and “the Mommy Mafia” to characterize things.  We see no need to change our views.

       Image result for structural problems

As we prepared our thoughts for this post, we initially considered suggesting that our school budgets suffer from ‘structural problems.’  Then it occurred to us that the term is an artful dodge, a deceptive distraction from reality.

                                    Image result for john richardson maine

Best we can recall, we first heard it in the 2003 time frame.  We were newly retired, and had decided to look into the biennial budget then being proposed by incoming Governor Baldacci.  On it’s face, it was staring at a $1.3 billion deficit against a prior budget baseline in the $5 billion range.

We wrote to the local paper, wondering how responsible officials could allow such an irresponsible proposal to come before us.  We’ll always remember how Johnny P responded on the pages of The Ostrich; that ‘no-one was responsible’ for the circumstances.  It ‘just happened,’ as he saw it.

                                   Image result for Hello, Mr. Bonks

That was a serious “vake-up” moment for us, or if you prefer, “hallo, boobilah.”

We realized that ‘structural problem’ was a consultant approved method for dehumanizing governmental mismanagement, overspending, and related budget problems.  “It’s not our fault; it’s the system.”

“We’re doing our best to confront the problem and make the hard choices, but it’s not easy.”

Bull-crap.  Or poppycock.  Every human situation, with very few exceptions, is caused by humans.  And that particularly applies to governmental budgets and the taxes they require to pay for them.

The ‘structural problems,’ if you will, with Brunswick School Department budgets are caused by these circumstances, among others:

  • failure to prioritize the stewardship of physical plant assets provided by and paid for by town residents; broken toilets, sunken floors, collapsed roofs, and more.
  • inability to recognize that spending and achievement are not connected.
  • denial of the reality that unwarranted staff salary increases well beyond inflation are unaffordable and unsustainable; continued belief that all teachers are equally competent and meritorious.
  • absolute inattention to expectations and achievement measures as figures of merit for school system performance, for both students and staff.
  • an abiding belief that the public can be shamed into shutting up and putting up.
  • in short, focusing on everything except ‘the children.’

Here’s a succinct summary in the budgetary domain.  In the 04-05 fiscal year, when system enrollment was at it’s peak of 3,372, the school budget was $27.7 million.  Ten fiscal years later, enrollment is down by nearly 1,000; we operate two fewer schools; and the budget is nearly $8 million higher.  Early ‘leaks’ for the upcoming budget say that Super PP wants a cool 10% increase for the coming year, or another $3.5 million above the current baseline.  That would put total school spending within tickling distance of $40 million.

We could go on and on about this, and unfortunately for you, we probably will at some point in the future.

We’ve been told over and over by those who never met a spending increase they wouldn’t support “that you get what you pay for.”  To which we’ve replied more than once you’re right.  If you increase teacher pay every year, you get more highly paid teachers.  And if you increase department funding every year, even in the face of declining enrollment and fewer building assets, you get a more expensive school department.

Shouldn’t words like ‘performance’ and ‘achievement’ play into this somehow?  Isn’t it time to say STOP, we need to examine the underlying premises on which we manage and fund our school operations?  That we need to find a better way to run this particular railroad?

For now, we’ll close by saying that we hope Billy will say enough of the same old, same old.  It’s time to review the underlying premises, priorities, and realities of Brunswick School Department budgets, and bring common sense and stewardship of the public trust to the system.  This will test his resolve and his skills mightily, since it would place him squarely in conflict with the role usually taken by board members over the years, which is to act as sales persons for School Administration wishes.

We wish him the very best, and send our fervent wishes that ‘new directions,’ a term in use here in Brunswick not that long ago, become the order of the day.

Structural problems?  We don’t think so.

Leadership solutions?  We hope so.

=======================================================================

For the interested student, here’s an article from the last few months that drove our interest in this post.

School repair costs could hit $9M

Board member refers to buildings as ‘dumps’

BY JOHN SWINCONECK Times Record Staff

BRUNSWICK

Repairs to the aging Coffin Elementary and Brunswick Junior High schools could balloon up to between $8 million and $9 million.

That’s according to an architectural firm in discussions with the school district about how to make minimal repairs to keep the schools operational for the next decade.

For some on the school board, putting money into the buildings is a necessary evil.

“They’re dumps,” said board member Christopher McCarthy bluntly on Wednesday, lamenting the piecemeal approach taken to extend the lives of the schools, “and we’ve continued to not invest in them for decades.”

Regardless, McCarthy said the buildings need to be fixed.

“To put a Band-Aid on these schools and think they’re good enough for our children is outrageous,” he said.

Also outrageous, he said, was a lack of public input or outcry over the buildings’ conditions.

“Fix the damn schools,” he said. “All of it. Not just pieces of it.”

Coffin Elementary School was built in 1954 and is 21 years past its designed life cycle, according to Lyndon Keck of PDT Architects.

Among Coffin’s problems is the fact that it’s not a sprinklered building, has rusted and rotted exterior door frames, is in need of a new fire alarm and evacuation system, and needs new roofing. A quarter of the building’s structure is made of combustible material, with wood-framed walls between classrooms that are covered in plywood.

The oldest part of Brunswick Junior High School was built in 1959. Additions were built in 1966 and 1976. A portion of the building was repaired and renovated in 1983 after a fire. Floors in six BJHS classrooms have sunken, and some floors are sloping six inches. Portions of the school’s storm drain system have collapsed. Windows are leaking and drafty, asbestos needs to be removed, and a new fire alarm system is needed, among other issues.

Keck said PDT’s repairs would ensure the safety and security of students, “not to make the buildings pretty.”

“I suspect the repair price tag will be substantial,” Keck said.

Early repair estimates for Coffin and BJHS are $2.3 million and $3.5 million, respectively, but those amounts may increase as investigations as to the extent of repairs are more fully realized.

It would take 15-18 months to conduct repairs, according to Keck.

“I’m not thrilled with throwing good money after bad,” said McCarthy. “We throw $8 million at these buildings, and we’re still left with 50- to 60-year-old buildings.”

Board member Sarah Singer said she was concerned that the board has plans to move the fifth grade to the junior high, possibly increasing that school’s student population by 180, when it was in bad shape.

“This should be considered a factor when talking about the state of the facility,” she said.

Keck’s update is the latest in the wrangling over the costs associated with the aging buildings.

In July, the town council approved a $454,080 bond to pay for upgrades to the junior high’s ventilation system.

In December, the school board approved a number of steps to address the district’s aging buildings, including applying for the next round of state funding, drumming up support for a bond to repair Coffin and BJHS, and addressing the vacant Jordan Acres School.

=====================================

What’s wrong?

COFFIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL was built in 1954 and is 21 years past its designed life cycle.

Among Coffin’s problems is the fact that it’s not a sprinklered building, has rusted and rotted exterior door frames, is in need of a new fire alarm and evacuation system, and needs new roofing.

THE OLDEST PART OF Brunswick Junior High School was built in 1959. Additions were built in 1966 and 1976. A portion of the building was repaired and renovated in 1983 after a fire. Floors in six BJHS classrooms have sunken, and some floors are sloping six inches.