Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A question for the interested student….

Gordon Page Sr., director of passenger rail operations, Maine Eastern Railroad:

Seems like most everyday of late, Side drives down Station Avenue in the vibrantly beating heart of our bustling and dynamic downtown economy.  And nearly every time, the Maine Eastern (MERR) summer tourist train is parked at the station.

Oddly, whenever we’ve checked, which we did again today, the locomotive isn’t idling; it’s completely shut off.  No noise, no vibrations, no putrid diesel fumes to ingest via nasal and oral cavities, or to burn the eyes.

How can this be, we wonder, when NNEPRA insists that Amtrak Downeaster locomotives they operate MUST IDLE at all times when not in motion.  And five hours or more of that idling takes place in local neighborhoods, including those right in the center of town, just yards away from all sorts of houses and apartments, and the local hunger prevention facility that serves meals and critical food supplies to those who need them.  Not to mention any number of local business establishments, including those who serve as a primary source of food products.

We know there are several experts on the subject who dwell among us, and who have direct communications links with the oracles of the Downeaster, and their factotums in the TrainRiders Northeast congregation.  So we expect a cogent and responsive answer to our query, and will publish it here if and when offered and signed.

Come to think of it, we can’t help but wonder whether local conditions wouldn’t be far better if MERR was the operator of the Brunswick to Portland run.  We suspect they might jump at the chance, since it would give them a far more viable business base, with year round operations.  With all the contemporary emphasis on ‘locavores,’ ‘farm to table,’ ‘local sourcing,’ shopping lcoally and such, it seems like an approach the more sensitive in our midst could really get behind.  Unless they’re simply hypocrites like all the rest of such zealots.

What’s not to like?  Lower carbon footprint, cleaner local air, supporting local businesses, and all the other buzzwords of the day.

                                  

There is a fatal flaw in our suggestion, of course, and you may have already guessed it.  Changing the operator of the Portland North link would put a famous, highly awarded “business professional” in a squeeze….a tight place, if you will.  Don’t you just hate it when a conflict of visions comes into the mix?

We can’t have that, can we?  Shame on us for such heresy.  We should be sentenced to standing within 100 ft of a shiny, idling Downeaster engine for 5 hours as an act of contrition. 

We’ll do so if Patsy and St. Wayne promise to join hands and stand with us.  We’ll even let them both wear shower caps to protect their coifs.  We, of course, have no such vulnerability.

All aboard!

Friday, August 8, 2014

If you think 2,000 ties is a lot, how about 28,000?

      

In our working days, well before the business casual dress code became universal, we had a sizable collection of ties.  Having come of age in the preppy era at a traditional and very old east coast college, older than even Bowdoin College, we were partial to button down collars, penny loafers (later, tassel loafers), and very traditional tie patterns, like rep stripes, foulard prints, and on occasion, madras prints and solid color knits.  Occasionally, whimsical patterns worked their way into our collection.

During the latter part of the shirt and tie era, we were buying our shirts via catalog (‘mail order’) at Lands End and Huntington Clothiers mostly, and would add to our tie collection as their sales and our whims moved us.  At our peak, we’re guessing we had roughly 100 ties in our collection, and to this day, we have somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 to choose from on those rare occasions where we put on a ‘sincere look’ for some event that calls for it.

We’re guessing that in the latter half of our collecting days, we paid in the range of $25 for a good quality silk tie, with a keeper loop on the back side of the front.

Recently, perhaps in a mailer of some sort, we came to find out that ties that would meet with our approval are $50 and more these days, and sometimes much more. Which makes us glad that we’ve retained several that still match many of the current offerings.  That must be what ‘traditional’ means, right?

Ironically, about $50 each is what we understand another type of tie goes for these days, and they are, as you can see, pretty traditional in design.  Railroads use them at a rate of about 3,200 per mile, and modern hardwood versions should be expected to last for 25 years or so.

Even in Maine, where as most of us know, we have harsh winters that effect not only our daily lives, but highways and railroad tracks.

This meandering introduction is our way of bringing you to the content of this recent article in a local newspaper:  http://www.pressherald.com/2014/07/29/downeaster-ending-month-of-downsides/

It ran on July 29th, and opens with these words:

This July will be the Downeaster’s worst month since Amtrak launched passenger train service in Maine 13 years ago.

Eight trains will be canceled this week, bringing the total number of July cancellations to 51. The service’s on-time performance – usually more than 80 percent – is now running around 15 percent.

In addition, two pedestrians have been killed this month in separate train collisions in North Berwick and South Portland.

“All of these things have created a bad aura,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the service. “It’s been a real struggle.”

The article continues:

Addressing the authority’s board of directors on Monday at a meeting in Portland, Quinn said that Pan Am Railways, which owns the tracks between Brunswick and the Massachusetts border, has been replacing 2,000 rail ties. The ties were damaged due to age and the repeated freeze-thaw cycles that occurred during this year’s extended winter.

“The railroad was not left in good shape after the winter,” she said

Because the ties are scattered along the route, replacing them is time consuming, she said. Amtrak must cancel some midday trains to give the crews time to work safely, she said.

Note the use of the passive voice in the underlined sentence, as if some phantom interloper was responsible for the damage to the trackage, including the ties.  This is a subtle distraction from the fact that NNEPRA is responsible for seeing that the track the Downeaster operates on is inspected, per FRA regulations, a minimum of twice a week, and maintained to FRA standards for passenger rail at Downeaster operating speeds. 
NNEPRA contracts with the track owner, Pan Am Railways, to see that these standards are met, which are well beyond those required for freight rail use at lower speeds.

           Tie handlers remove old ties, and replace them with new ones. More than 35,000

Now the worst part.  In a classic ‘oh, by the way’ comment buried several paragraphs down in the story, we find this nugget:

Beeler said he expects the number of delays and cancellations will diminish after this week. However, more disruptions could occur this fall when Pan Am Railways is scheduled to replace another 28,000 ties. The work will be concentrated in a few areas, so it is expected to proceed more quickly and there should be fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer, he said.

Invited Guests Onboard the Inaugural Train

“Could occur???”  These are the kinds of pronouncements we’ve come to expect from some of our local benefactors, shown here in happier days aboard a celebratory Downeaster run.  The same sorts of ‘public servants’ are often nowhere to be found when things go all to hell, as it were.  Or, when pressed, adopt the same passive voice and other rhetorical dodges.

Which is why you’re glad you have us.  If 2,000 ties needing replacement were enough to cause something like 2 months of service disruption, we can only guess what trauma replacing 28,000 ties, or fourteen times as many, might cause.  Even if the work is more ‘concentrated.’  Anyway you look at it, we find it absurd to believe that replacing 28,000 could “cause fewer cancellations than what occurred this summer.”

                                      

Details aside, larger questions apply to this looming disaster.  As we pointed out above, NNEPRA has the responsibility to inspect and maintain the track to FRA standards for Downeaster operations.  Presumably, they contract with Pan Am to perform the actual work, and therefore have an obligation to effectively manage and oversee that subcontracted activity.                                              

It doesn’t sound to us like they’ve been particularly competent at doing so.  FRA reportedly issued ‘slow orders’ for 27 miles of system track this spring, which led to the recent repairs, and the need to perform a great deal more.  28,000 ties spread out over 27 miles would amount to a 34% replacement factor.

With a 25 year life and regular replacement as needed, the average replacement factor should be 4%.  So it’s entirely reasonable to ask NNEPRA just what is going on here?  They’ve been operating the Downeaster from Boston to Portland for 13 years or so, and the track between Portland and Brunswick was improved at a cost of $38 million no more than 3 years ago.  A similar amount was spent to improve the track below Portland.

This leaves a pretty thin set of candidate excuses for this ‘big surprise.’

We also can’t help but wonder when a breaking point could be reached in the contractual arrangement between NNEPRA and Pan Am.  We had come to believe that the former devotes roughly $1 million per year to maintain the trackage to FRA standards.

If ties do cost about $50 each, that means the 30,000 being replaced this year cost $1.5 million alone just in purchase costs.  We’ll wild guess that labor and overhead costs associated with replacement are at least as much, and so this year’s work might run in the range of $3 million, or well above what should be the allocated average annual costs.

                 

Is there a breaking point in the arrangement?  We won’t know unless NNEPRA decides to be accountable and transparent in their stewardship of public dollars, will we?

                                    

We suspect that in the end, a more proven and reliable approach will be taken. So once again, we suggest you ‘brace for incoming.’

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sausage, letters, and other pork related items….

              

It’s summer in Maine, and an old man’s fancy turns to thoughts of sausage.  Sausage on the grill, if you don’t mind, thank you.  But here in Brunswick, we often pick up the aroma of Brunswick Sausage smoldering nearby; it’s one of the few aromas more powerful than that of diesel fumes from aged choo choo locomotives.

                      

Though there are other varieties, including ‘meatless,’ most sausage has pork as a key ingredient.  Which sets the stage perfectly for today’s little examination of the passing parade.

To whet your appetite, we’ll begin with a few ‘small plates’ from the TIGER Grant Narrative we recently told you about and posted here:  http://www.scribd.com/doc/235748752/NNEPRA-Tiger-6-Grant-Narrative-April-2014.  This is the document the ‘capitolists’ at NNEPRA used to describe the need to spend another $30 million to ‘optimize’ the service between Portland and Brunswick, in addition to the $38 million plus that was spent to initiate the service.

Take a bite of this passage first, found on Page 2 of the Narrative:

“The response to the limited Downeaster service to Freeport and Brunswick has been overwhelmingly positive, exceeding daily average ridership projections by 50% in the first eighteen months of operation and generating millions of dollars in economic impact. Municipalities, tourism organizations, private businesses, developers and others along the entire Downeaster corridor are encouraging NNEPRA to add more trips to meet growing demand.”

             

Some points in response:

  • Define ‘overwhelmingly positive;’ the average train between Portland and Brunswick is running at 10-15% of capacity, or the equivalent of no more than a single busload.
  • ‘Exceeding projections?’  By who; hired consultants?
  • ‘Generating millions of dollars in economic impact.’  For who?  Portland, Boston, or other points south?  And what evidence is there of any positive economic impact, especially when municipal expenses are factored in?  We’re not aware of a single piece of documented evidence of ANY positive economic impact.  And until we see some, this is all hype and bluster.
  • ‘Others…are encouraging NNEPRA to add more trips to meet growing demand.’  What growing demand?  When trains are running close to empty, how can you justify adding more runs?  And please provide documentation of the ‘encouraging’ coming from all those corridor denizens.

     

Now, with apologies to the rooster who believes he makes the sun come up, let’s move along to pages 13 and 14 of the Narrative document, where we find this fattier Brunswick Sausage:

“In the past two years, a once barren Brownfield site located between downtown Brunswick and Bowdoin College has been transformed into the bustling Brunswick Station. The complex includes restaurants, medical offices, retail shops, a visitors’ center and a 52-room hotel along with the train station adjacent to the train platform.
The success of the project has exceeded expectations as this area has become a transportation hub providing local and intercity bus services, rental cars and excursion train service to mid-coast Maine. Municipal offices are relocating to the site and plans are already underway to create further development in association with Downeaster service.”  (Two photos are provided to highlight the claims, and are shown below, along with their caption.)

                      image

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      “More than 125 people are employed by the businesses at Brunswick Station.”

Again, some thoughts in response:

  • Note first that the photo taken in Byrne’s Pub is dated January 2011, nearly two years before the Downeaster began coming to Brunswick.
  • ‘Bustling?’  By what measure?  The slightest inference, suggestion, or other thought that “125 people are employed” at Brunswick Station because of anything to do with the Downeaster is pure poppycock, with a side of Brunswick Sausage.  And a kool-aid chaser.
  • ‘Transformation’ involves a number of tax incentives and other municipal benevolences, including annual costs of platform maintenance and Departure Center operation.
  • ‘Train station adjacent to the train platform.’  Please explain the difference between the station, the platform, and the separately mentioned ‘visitors’ center.’
  • Any notion that the two large medical establishments are there because of tie-ins to Downeaster service is absurd.  No one rides the train to Brunswick to go to a doctor.  Anymore than they ride a Concord Coach bus to do so.
  • If memory serves, the only ‘retail shop’ is a Bowdoin College Book Store, which similarly does not exist because people ride trains to Brunswick to shop there.  News flash; we’ve been told this store just closed!
  • Of the two restaurants, one was a success for many years in a nearby building, though it expanded in the new building.
  • The Departure Center, as we call the so-called Visitor’s Center, sells tickets, is staffed by volunteers, and is not self-supporting.  Town government subsidizes it, and perhaps others as well.
  • ‘Exceeded expectations?’  Whose expectations, and documented where?  Define ‘exceeded’ as it applies here.
  • ‘Transportation hub?’  All the elements mentioned were already in town for years.  Suggesting that the Downeaster had anything to do with that is a stretch too far.

   

  • “Cock-a-doodle doo” is the sound a rooster makes to cause the sun to rise.  Apparently the ‘toot-toot’ and acrid smells of a choo-choo made Brunswick Municipal Offices relocate.  The latter can also make you bite your tongue and wear funny hats.  Once again, any notion that the train caused the Town Hall to move to the McLellan defies credibility.  But hey, this is NNEPRA, and credibility is not a top priority.
  • Some times the cock crows twice, hoping two suns will come up.  Hence the mention of ‘plans….already underway to create further development in association with Downeaster service.’  To which we say, what form will that association take?

You see, we prefer plain, specific, unambiguous english language, instead of marketing. In short………

         

One of these days, since we have some experience in the field, we’ll explain to you the difference between marketing and business development, but not now. 

Instead, we’ll move on to a subsidiary document to the TIGER Grant Narrative referenced above.  You can find it here:

http://www.amtrakdowneaster.com/sites/default/files/Tiger6_LettersOfSupport%20Compressed.pdf

The first thing you will see in the document are three letters dated April 2014, including one dated on the cover date of the document itself.  Then you will find this page:

image

This page is followed by a string of letters, all of which, save one, are dated 2012; the odd one is dated 2013.  These letters, plus the language of the paragraph at the head of the list, create the distinct impression this is the third year in a row that NNEPRA has applied for the same grant.  One can’t help but wonder why the grant was denied in past years, and how helpful it is to attach letters of support whose “sell by” date has long since passed.

We note as well that Brunswick’s Town Council did not submit a letter of support for either the prior or current applications.  Hm…..one wonders what lies between the lines, doesn’t one?

Note as well that the Downeaster didn’t start coming to Freeport and Brunswick until late 2012; these letters, save one, were written before the effects of that extension could be known.

Two of the letter writers, Dana Connors, and John Bubier, are NNEPRA Directors.  Not that it matters.  Herewith a glimpse at some ‘highlights’ in the letters of endorsement, with observations by Side.

Biddeford/Bubier:

image

Notice the careful wording: “underway within walking distance.”  You can decide whether the train has led to all or nearly all of the $350 million in development.   We fail to see how ‘optimizing’ service between Portland and Brunswick has anything to do with Biddeford.

Biddeford-Saco Chamber:

image

Three bowls full of less traffic and reduced fossil fuels because of optimized service to Brunswick.  How about making the case with a critically thought out analysis, instead of taking the words NNEPRA and their consultants handed you.  And you might want to rethink your use of safety and tough winter travel after reading about Downeaster track repairs and other ‘safety’ items in recent months.

Brunswick Downtown Association:

image

Let’s see: Bowdoin students and ‘many of us’ taking the train south to other places to spend money; revitalizing the downtown business district, which is going in the wrong direction since the train began coming to town;  accelerating redev of the former Navy base; and helping fill over 1000 available housing units.  Are you serious?  Affecting ‘hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses’ along the coast?  Next time, why not exaggerate a little?  Instead of a lot.

Durham, NH:

image

So; Durham, NH will benefit from train service to Brunswick from Portland being ‘optimized.’  And at long last, UNH and Bowdoin college will have ‘connectivity.’  Apparently, until the train came, you ‘couldn’t get there from here.’  Nor could folks in Durham find Brunswick.  Maybe their horses couldn’t handle the trip.

Freeport USA:

image

Isn’t this the group that gave Patsy Quinn an annual award this year?

Boston Visitors Bureau:

image

You think Boston’s Visitor’s Bureau would be endorsing this if the train was going to be hauling net visitor traffic and economic activity northward to Maine and Brunswick?  Or because they see the train as creating suction for visitors and dollars to come south to that area?

Portland:

image

Ditto for Portland; are they looking to send dollars and people north, or pull them south?

JHR Development:

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“Will directly and profoundly impact each and every tenant at Brunswick Station.”  Including the Credit Union?  The now empty book store?  The Orthopedic practice?  The Medical Clinic?  The Bowdoin College dance rehearsal spaces?  Their ‘futures may well hinge on the train?’

Oh come on; get serious.  You just want some more pork fat to drizzle around the development because the local pork fat is beginning to go rancid.  We have no doubt it’s a ‘huge priority’ for you.

LLBean:

image

Let me translate: “ the train hasn’t begun to run up here yet, but we believe all the extrapolated hype about optimization on top of the hype for the basic train that will be coming in less than a year.”  We have limited anecdotal reports on actual effects, but they all say not making any difference at all.

Maine Development Foundation:

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We can’t speak to Portland, but anyone who thinks Freeport and Brunswick are ‘economically vibrant and growing communities’ is going to Portland for smoking materials.  Or maybe they’re being transported north on the train.  Of course, this was written more than two years ago, so it’s a bit ‘aged.’  Note the reference to ‘connecting us to larger Boston and New England markets;’ those are fancy words for giant sucking sound.

Maine Eastern Railroad:

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Our understanding is that the MERR summer tourist train is hanging on by a thread, so we’ll cut them slack for looking for any life-line at all.

Maine Chambers/Dana Connors:

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Another sitting Director on the NNEPRA Board.  People who head Chambers, especially state level units, are known for arm waving and expansive hyperbole, and Connors sure qualifies.  “Optimizing” service between Portland and Brunswick will support more than $150 million in private development projects in Maine alone?’  Get real, pilgrim.

And after that, please send us your list of known developments that are waiting for this grant before they pull the trigger.

City of Rockland:

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We’re pretty sure this is the winner among all the letters for ‘stretching’ credulity, in more ways than one.

Southern Midcoast Chamber:

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We’re giving this letter the award for most egregious Bravo Sierra out of the whole lot.  “Transform Southern Midcoast Maine;” what happened to Wallace anyway?  Is it too late for him or one of the staff to list in writing those merchants and businesses ‘from Wiscasset to Edgecomb’ who repeatedly express the benefits they see from this project?  Especially since that in March 2012, when this letter was written, the trains had yet to come North of Portland?

“The Downeaster opens my business up to the entire East Coast!”  Wow!  The internet opens it up to the whole world, you silly goose.  And air and auto travel open it up to the entire nation.

TRN:

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TrainRiders Northeast is the lobbying affiliate of NNEPRA, so what else would you expect.  No wonder the head lobbyist gets birthday cakes from the Executive Director.

                                     Patricia-Wayne

Town of Wells:

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How improving the service to Brunswick helps Wells is beyond us.  But note that Wells Station has as many  passengers using the bus and Park and RIde as it does the train.  Even so, the writer trips all over himself by saying without the train, there would be no option but using ‘the automobile.’  True believers, see the TRN item above.

We think a critical reading of the materials above, if you can stomach them all, is ample proof that truth-telling is not a key component of such grant pursuits, nor for that matter, anything to do with chasing the wiley porkers.

We are in the minority, but still, we can’t help but say:

                                         

And remind you that pork-chasing and gratuitous boot-licking (GBL) go hand in hand.

                      

                      

                            

To repeat our favorite song, can someone knowledgeable in the subject area please explain to us what an Amtrak Downeaster Train can do that a bus can’t do more efficiently, unobtrusively, inexpensively, reliably, flexibly, and with less carbon footprint and front end ‘investment?’ And with no requirement for perpetual operating subsidies?

Oh wait….no-body has ever had a model bus layout, have they?  Oh yes they have!  So now what’s the excuse for the choo-choo lovers?  Maybe we can invent a bus that makes a choo-choo sound, goes clickety-clack and rolls from side to side, and emits noxious fumes.

    

                                  

http://www.ehattons.com/stocklist/1000588/1000766/OO_Gauge_1_76_Scale_Buses/prodlistbyscaleandtype.aspx

Well, this may be one of our longest posts ever in pure column inches.  But admit it; you loved every word and every graphic.

You did, didn’t you?  Because we need to ask you for a letter of endorsement, if you don’t mind, and we’ll write it for you.

Monday, August 4, 2014

FIASCO on FONSI: a reprise

Nearly three weeks ago, Other Side issued a Finding of AWOL Stewardship re: Contingent Obligations (FIASCO) against the FONSI granted to NNEPRA regarding MLF construction at Brunswick West.  It was in this post, one of our few in the dog days of summer.

                                               Maine news, election results and politics, sports and opinion - Bangor Daily News

We’re pleased to say that the Bangor Daily News has just posted a commentary we wrote on the same subject, albeit with a slightly less irreverent tone.  You can find it here:

http://bangordailynews.com/2014/08/03/opinion/contrary-to-popular-belief-construction-of-brunswick-train-depot-hasnt-been-given-the-green-light/?ref=OpinionBox

Since we own the intellectual property, we’re posting the entire column for you:

Contrary to popular belief, construction of Brunswick train depot hasn’t been given the green light

Readers of the BDN know that the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, an agency of Maine state government, has been planning to build a 60,000-square-foot maintenance and layover facility for Downeaster train sets in the “Brunswick West” residential neighborhood.

Considerable advocacy has surrounded the proposal, and much opposition has been expressed. Most recently, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a decree called a Finding of No Significant Impact as the purported conclusion of the environmental approval process for constructing such an industrial facility.

Within days of that document’s June 13 release, the rail authority, its lobbyist TrainRiders Northeast, and virtually every print and electronic media outlet in the state hailed the decree as “clearing the way for construction to begin.”

In a buoyant mood, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority solicited “community input” on the exterior color scheme for the 650-foot long, 40-foot tall building.

Apparently, neither the principles nor any of the media outlets read the decree, because if they had, they would have reached a far different conclusion. I refer to two very specific passages in the Finding of No Specific Impact.

The first passage, on page 16 of the document, states that the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority “will be required to comply with all applicable federal, state, and local permitting requirements during the implementation of the Project.”

Then this, found on page 17 of the same document, in the conclusion: “[T]he Project will have no foreseeable significant impact on the quality of the human or natural environment provided it is implemented in accordance with the commitments identified in this [Finding of No Specific Impact]. As the Project sponsor, [Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority] is responsible for ensuring all environmental commitments identified in this [Finding of No Specific Impact] are fully implemented.”

Why are these passages important? They make a crucial point: The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority is not released to start construction, as has been widely touted and reported. Quite to the contrary, the Finding of No Significant Impact constrains the rail authority, by edict of the Federal Railroad Administration, to address crucial contingencies before proceeding in any physical way. The Finding of No Significant Impact is granted provisionally on condition that all applicable federal, state and municipal permitting requirements are followed.

The Federal Railroad Administration explicitly makes this commitment on behalf of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.

So it seems that the authority’s clearly defined obligation of gaining state and local approval for the construction project has just begun. I am not a lawyer; nonetheless, the unambiguous language in the Finding of No Significant Impact decree leaves little room for discussion. Furthermore, while federal pre-emption has been cited by the rail authority to dismiss the need for such approval, the federal decree tacitly argues against any such consideration.

Where do things currently stand? While the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority applied for and was granted a stormwater management permit by the state, a recent Superior Court decision vacated that permit. The Finding of No Significant Impact obligates the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to apply for a lengthy list of permits. Brunswick’s Zoning Ordinance limits building size to 20,000 square feet in this location, while the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s plans are for a building triple that size. So it looks like the rail authority doesn’t have “local” approval either. Under the circumstances, finalizing the construction schedule and exterior color scheme seem premature.

Should we expect legal action soon, in a Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority attempt to sidestep the “commitment” the Federal Railroad Administration has made on its behalf? Or will we instead see Patricia Quinn, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s executive director, and her “outstanding staff,” as their TrainRiders Northeast lobbyist called them, comply with the decision handed down by their sponsoring federal overseers?

We encourage you, in particular, to read and check back on the comments that flow onto the web page carrying the article.  They provide an interesting glimpse into the varied perspectives and mis-conceptions of the general public, especially as they relate to understanding economics and economic development.

Frankly, some of the commentary leaves us aghast, but then we should be use to such thinking.  We’ve lived in Cape Brunswick, the richest little town in America, long enough to have learned that we don’t see things the way others do.

              

All Aboard!

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Gravy trains, business of the year, “capitol” cronyism, and assorted other dissonances

              

You don’t grow up like we did without loving gravy.  Traditionally, gravy making chores were handled by Side’s father, who also handled the roast.  Mom handled all the baking, cruller making, and every other aspect of meal preparation.  Including the potato pancakes.  Yummy.  And the sauerbraten and dumplings.

Accordingly, your correspondent grew up pursuing the same aspects of ‘meat and potatoes’ cookery, and we consider ourselves a fairly decent gravy maker.  Since we use no recipe, results can vary, but we believe in the taste and adjust approach.  And never forget a ‘pinch’ of sugar, as Dad taught us.  Our son took an interest in such things at an early age, and can now do a decent job in his own kitchen.

In recent years, we’ve developed a fondness for biscuits and sausage gravy and, we like to think, have come to a place where we have a dependable and enjoyable approach to this rather easy but hearty and satisfying dish.  Enough so that when the extended family gathers, it’s one of our standard and expected offerings.

So what does this have to do with the subject at hand?  Pretty much nothing; we just like thinking about gravy in the edible form.  We’re using it here to ‘set the hook’ in the editorial sense.

Gravy train, in the sense alluded to in our post title, has nothing whatsoever to do with taste, eating, or cooking, although ‘cooking the books’ is often involved.  Not to mention copious amounts of ‘sugar’ to sweeten the story-line. Instead, at least in the case before us, it has to do with government involvement in what is portrayed as ‘economic development,’ ‘stimulus,’ etc.

                 

We’ve written a number of times in the past about the intentional deceptiveness of considering the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), and its problem child the Downeaster, as a ‘business’ and ‘engine of economic development.’  No matter, the local self-esteem dealers who traffic in such matters always have Awards at the ready to recognize ‘excellence’ in such pursuits, reinforcing the corrupt narrative foundations on which such enterprises are built.  Often this amounts to nothing but thinly veiled arms of government congratulating and rewarding other branches of government.

      

We’ve told you repeatedly that NNEPRA is in fact a creation and agency of Maine State Government.  Their Downeaster service is a creation of state and federal government, and it’s ongoing operation is subsidized by local, state, and federal taxpayers.  Some of these amounts are “off budget” at the NNEPRA level, like Brunswick’s annual expenditures on platform maintenance and Departure Center funding.  But even at the ‘on budget’ level, the Downeaster runs at an operating loss of nearly 50%.

                                

The rationale for Downeaster funding and operation is enough to make you want to chew nickels and spit dimes.  If you look at the early foundational documents, you’ll see frequent references to reducing auto traffic and congestion on our interstates.  Not that we experience any ‘congestion’ in the conventional sense.  Why they even draw upon Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds provided to the state by the feds to subsidize annual operations.

So, one must believe, if this rationale is true, that many if not all riders on the Downeaster were formerly motor car drivers and passengers on the nearby highways, and have simply been diverted from one mode of transportation to another – the Amtrak Downeaster.  (Anyone who has been near the running Amtrak engines like we have should have serious doubts about the net ‘Air Quality’ benefit, but we won’t dwell on the credibility of this raison d’etre here and now.)  This is the ‘commuter train’ model, which at it’s core has no influence on first order economic activity stimulus.

On the other hand, towns like our dear Brunswick have been convinced to allocate both real estate and economic resources to the wonders of The Downeaster for exactly the opposite reason: for bringing new visitors to town, and with them, wondrous economic benefit that would otherwise not exist.  Taxpayer ‘investments,’ it is argued, will be rewarded handsomely with returns to local business establishments, making it all worthwhile.  For all of us, somehow.

This is the opposite of the ‘commuter train’ model.  So much then for air quality and carbon footprint; the Downeaster makes both worse, but we sell more hamburgers in town, and maybe rent a few more rooms.

So, one wonders, which is it?  We, of course, have argued that the Downeaster coming to Brunswick has made us a depot for loading up passengers from the local area and their discretionary dollars at the in town departure center, so they can spend those dollars at points south where far more options for doing so are available.

Anyone tempted to say the train is both diminishes either case.  The anemic ridership figures for Brunswick barely tip the scales for affecting travel on 295 to points south.  And for each rider you assign to that class, you take them out of the economic benefit category, which while raved about by those who sold their souls to get the train to come, has yet to be demonstrated in any tangible way.

Realistically speaking, the ridership levels, which amount to beans, won’t allow the suggestion that it has to do with both.  And we don’t see doubling the number of trains per day as doing anything but adding to the carbon footprint and local air, noise, and traffic pollution.

The going really starts to get tough when you examine the underlying dynamics of Downeaster recurring and non-recurring expenses.  In the same way that Maine’s recent winter seemed to severely damage the underpinnings of the track the Downeaster runs on, a cold and objective analysis of the related finances can undermine the story lines upon which NNEPRA travels.

Let’s take a quick look at the ‘investments’ made, or proposed to be made, in extending Downeaster Service from Portland to Brunswick, a total of something like 28 miles.  Here’s a document that specifies the investment by taxpayers in preparing for this extension:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/235748518/FRA-NNEPRA-Grant-Cooperative-Agreement-2013-5-25 

It’s for the amount of $38.4 million dollars to prepare the way for service extension to Brunswick.  This track work was done in the 2010 to 2012 time frame.  We don’t know how many of the ‘slow orders’ and repairs applied to this stretch of rail, but if any did, a case exists for challenging the management competence and effectiveness in project execution.

As if that weren’t enough, here’s a document showing that another $30 million needs to be spent on upgrade projects for the Brunswick extension, including the MLF at Brunswick West.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/235748752/NNEPRA-Tiger-6-Grant-Narrative-April-2014

Notwithstanding expectations that the $12 million estimate shown for that project is likely to be far short of reality (the first estimate was around $4 million!), the total ‘investment’ from taxpayers, to bring the train here from Portland, is in the $70 million range.

Note in the second document this Freudian slip: “Project Type: Capitol Project.”  Or maybe it’s not a slip, but a ‘gaffe,’ as in an inadvertent case of telling the truth.  In a viable business, such projects would be capital expenses, but in non-viable pork barrel undertakings, these are, in reality, capitol projects.  One might go so far as to suggest this is crony capitolism at its finest; or if you prefer, capitol cronyism.

           

In the second document, note how $10 million in ‘capitol’ needs to be spent on completing the Portland ‘wye.’  The sole purpose of which is to allow the train to be turned around more easily.  We’ve got a pretty good idea what it takes for a car or truck to turn around; do any of you know what it takes a passenger bus, say like a Concord Coach bus, to do so?  We’re thinking a parking lot, or a trip around a block or two, but we could be forgetting some unknown complications.

                   http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/nakedpastor/files/2013/06/house-of-cards-550x550.jpg

And you wonder why better highways and motor vehicles all but ended the era of passenger rail travel in the US?  But ours is not to have a say, ours is but to pay and pay.

We can’t end this treatise, of course, without explaining that there is a bright side. The $70 million taxpayer investment (or more) has tremendous payoff.  For example, as explained in a guest column some weeks back, the investment results in an additional $100,000 a year in revenue to NNEPRA for Amtrak operations.  Don’t let it bother you that Brunswick has to spend roughly the same amount for station maintenance and Departure Center subsidy.  Or that Amtrak has to spend $200,000 a year to have Brunswick Taxi transport crews back and forth between Brunswick and Portland twice a day.

At least if the MLF is built as proposed, NNEPRA says the taxi service will no longer be required (do you hear that, CoJo and Dale?)  On the other hand, MLF operating costs will accrue, to the tune of $500,000 a year or so.

But so what; this is all for the common good.  You know, economic benefits deriving from tourists coming into the area, who would never have done so if not for the train.  And reduction in traffic on 295, which provides innumerable (and intangible) benefits for us all, even if it means tourists aren't riding the train, commuters are.

                

For reasons we can’t quite put our finger on, we feel moved to close with a question we’ve posed before, but haven’t received an answer to.  It is this:

Can someone knowledgeable in the subject area please explain to us what an Amtrak Downeaster Train can do that a bus can’t do more efficiently, unobtrusively, inexpensively, reliably, flexibly, and with less carbon footprint and front end ‘investment?’

Other than deliver gravy, that is, with the encouragement of celebrated personalities.