Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Setting the record straight

We’ve been posting for months, if not years, about the puffery that passes for information regarding the Downeaster train service, its specifics, and its purported benefits.                       

There’s only one Side, but there are numerous individuals, entities, and organizations hoping to gain some sort of benefit from unending government ‘investment,’ or as we see it, speculation, and perpetual operating subsidies for otherwise non-viable, unsustainable programs. 

                    

This is the magic of OPM; it can turn otherwise sensible individuals into blabbering idiots.

Which brings us to the Downeaster run by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA,) an agency of Maine State Government.  $38 million has already been spent to extend rail service 28 miles north from Portland to Brunswick, and now they want to spend another $30 million for a ‘Service Optimization Project’ for this extension.  Including the construction of a huge, industrial grade Maintenance and Layover Facility in Brunswick.

                       

NNEPRA has convinced locals in Freeport and Brunswick, the two stops on the Portland North route, that the train cannot continue to run without this $30 million being spent.  Business promotional groups in both communities are dispensing copious amounts of kool-aid to the locals to help them swallow a message that the train is a marvel of economic stimulus.  We may be one of the few choking on the message, no matter how much sweet nectar accompanies it.

               

Recently, such groups, no doubt stimulated by NNEPRA itself and their lobbying group TrainRiders Northeast, have sensed that the magic of the Downeaster legend may be tarnishing just a bit.  So they’ve drafted letters to the Governor, stating their strong endorsement of all things Downeaster, no matter how much they might cost.  The groups doing so are:

  • The Brunswick Downtown Association
  • The Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce
  • FreeportUSA

We have all three letters, and have posted them here for your enjoyment: http://www.scribd.com/doc/238469177/Brunswick-Freeport-Letters-Aug-14

We do our level best to set the record straight in situations like this.  In this case, the content of the letters is so easily challenged that it’s downright embarrassing to the organizations who sent them.

                             

In response, we decided we had an obligation, in pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way, to correct their numerous ‘mis-statements.’  We drafted a letter of our own to the Governor providing our response to the claims of the cited organizations.

                  

We attach it here for your edification.  It’s a bit of a lengthy read, but we had two choices as we saw it.  Either briefly suggest that the letters be summarily dismissed, or be a bit more helpful by challenging them point by point.  We chose the latter, and now it’s too late.  The deed is done.  Here you go.

Nighty night, and sleep well.

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2 September 2014

To: Governor Paul R. LePage

Subject: Comments re: letters to you from Brunswick & Freeport civic organizations endorsing the Downeaster Service Optimization Project & Brunswick MLF

From: Pem Schaeffer, Brunswick (pemster4062@yahoo.com; 798-6919)

Dist: See attached list

Dear Governor LePage:

I'm writing to offer counterpoints to three letters sent to you by community organizations in Brunswick and Freeport. All attached, they are:

  1. From the Brunswick Downtown Association, dated August 6, 2014, and signed by Deirdra Perry, Board of Directors Chair.

  2. From the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce, dated August 19, 2014, and signed by Michelle Allot, President.

  3. From FreeportUSA, dated August 19, 2014, and signed by Kelly E. Edwards, Executive Director.

(Please excuse the repetitive nature of some of the comments offered; they reflect the repetitive nature of the letters themselves, which show distinct signs of coordinated preparation.)

All three letters express glowing praise for the 'positive economic impact' of the Downeaster on their communities, and solicit your support for the Downeaster Service Optimization Project, particularly construction of the Amtrak Maintenance and Layover Facility at the 'Brunswick West' location. The Optimization project, with a total projected cost of $30 million (supplementing a sunk investment of $38-million,) is the subject of a TIGER Grant Application for $14 million submitted in April this year by NNEPRA.

Each item is full of soaring generalizations, factual errors, contradictions, and claims for which no objective data exists or is offered. They exemplify letters supporting programs to be paid for by taxpayer funds handed down from on high, and reflect disdain for Henry Hazlitt's piercing “Economics in One Lesson:”

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer term effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

In all likelihood the letters have been written and submitted at the behest of and with the help of NNEPRA and TrainRiders Northeast, out of concern that the $30 million Service Optimization Project is at risk for several reasons. Adding to this is a recent surge of activity for piloting commuter bus service that would be more flexible and far less expensive than Amtrak service. Taken together, and coupled with increased public scrutiny into the fundamental value proposition for the Downeaster, particularly to Brunswick and Freeport, it's clear that both towns sense an uncertain future for the current train service.

(Reference below to the proposed piloting program for commuter bus service relate to this recent article: http://www.timesrecord.com/news/2014-08-12/Front_Page/More_public_input_sought_on_bus_service_to_Freepor.html)

The following itemizes the most prominent weaknesses and inconsistencies in each letter.

Comments on Brunswick Downtown Association letter of August 6, 2014

  • Many downtown businesses do not belong to the association; support for its efforts is not universal.

  • Claims of positive economic impact from train riders has not been backed up with any form of objective data. In fact, there have been some business closures, including in the immediate vicinity of the train station. Anecdotal evidence suggests no increased sales attributable to train service.

  • 53,000 visitors did not come to Brunswick last year due to the train. That is the approximate Freeport-Brunswick Downeaster ridership reported by NNEPRA in both directions. It's safe to say that most visitors on the train end up leaving the same way, counting twice in those numbers. No split between visitors originating elsewhere and coming to Brunswick as opposed to riders originating regionally and leaving the area is tracked and reported.

  • 90% of the trains departing and leaving Brunswick are carrying less than 10% of capacity.

  • No estimates or mention are made for how many Brunswick area residents are using the train to travel to points south to spend their discretionary dollars in Portland or Boston, where options for doing so are far greater than in Brunswick.

  • Emphasis is on 'accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,' as the classic Johnny Mercer tune goes. There is no way to effectively gauge the loss of sales in Brunswick from those taking their dollars south, but it surely happens. Even more, for obvious reasons, there is no interest in admitting to this effect, let alone measuring it.

  • Reported success of the train ignores the reality of diverting passengers from one mode of transportation (bus, auto) to the train. In other words, coming to town ON the train is not equivalent to coming to town BECAUSE of the train.

  • Bowdoin students, staff, parents, and visitors traveling on the train represent no net increase or decrease in activity. By definition, they are traveling to and from Brunswick because of the college, and represent no differential effect due to the train.

  • Grandiose claims that the train influences visitors from the 'state, region, country, and across the globe' to come to Brunswick are completely unsubstantiated by any objective measure, and upon critical scrutiny are illogical.

  • There are no objective data to substantiate that 'a growing number of people are using the Downeaster as their preferred mode of transportation both to and from Brunswick.' Even if there were, the specifics of the claim infer this is diverted passenger traffic, not an increase in overall travel.

  • Bowdoin parents' gratitude is similarly unsubstantiated. In any case, taxpayers have no obligation to provide for student transportation, and the college could easily operate evening bus runs to and from Portland to provide safe and more economical transit for those seeking diversion there.

  • “Becoming the transportation hub of the Southern Midcoast Region” is another pretentious and unsubstantiated claim. Given the prior existing bus service, the Downeaster coming to town offers not a single additional option for travelers, while requiring additional ongoing support by Brunswick taxpayers, and by those at state and federal levels as well.

  • Concord Coach has been operating bus service from Brunswick and coastal points north to Portland and Boston for years. It hasn't required $38 million in taxpayer funding to do so, and does not need $30 million more in taxpayer funding to 'optimize' its service. Concord does not require perpetual direct operating subsidies, and is far more convenient and helpful for traveling to Logan Airport and South Station, among other destinations. Scheduled service could be expanded and/or modified at literally a moment's notice, rather than requiring years of effort and expense.

  • In summary, this letter includes no tangible rationale for Downeaster service, its expansion, or its 'optimization,' not to mention the negative consequences of in-town train idling and that of the proposed MLF construction in an established neighborhood.

Comments on Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce letter of August 19, 2014

  • No objective evidence of business owners in town asserting the positive economic impact of train riders coming to Freeport is provided, or known of. In fact, in a TV spot some months back, the owner of Petrillo's, a restaurant just steps from the train station, said he noticed a 'slight uptick' since the train began running, which sounds very much like a euphemism for 'no noticeable difference' when dealing with a news reporter under coaching by local officials.

  • In keeping with that thought, I knew an in town B&B owner who had a couple come on the train. They indicated to him that though they came ON the train, they did not come BECAUSE of the train. Once again, diversion is not growth.

  • Similar to the Brunswick letter, the notion that Freeport area residents might be taking money they would spend locally to points south for more options is conveniently ignored; and there is no way to measure that effect easily, or interest in doing so. Especially since it would undermine the economic case made for the train.

  • Ditto the concept of diverting travel from one mode to another, rather than increasing visitor traffic.

  • 16,000 passengers arriving and departing in 2013 amounts to 44 passengers per day total. Considering that most will travel both ways, that works out to an average of 22 passengers arriving per day, or 11 per incoming train.

  • For a town that claims 3 million visitors per year, or an average of 8,200 per day, crediting 22 incoming train passengers for a positive economic impact is a stretch beyond reason.

  • Citing “10,000 inquiries” at the combined Train and Visitor Center as a measure of the train's effect on local business is near meaningless in this context, especially since that number is in the same range as the arriving passenger tally, and the Center is adjacent to major parking areas and shopping facilities. An arriving passenger asking “where can I get some lunch?” hardly represents anything startling.

  • “Reducing the strain on the state's transportation infrastructure and air quality sensitivity” is an imaginative stretch of common sense. 22 passengers per day is the equivalent of 6-11 autos. Anyone who has seen the Amtrak locomotive puffing away 6 times per day would be hard pressed to say that makes for better air compared to a hand-full of autos. Claiming this reduces strain on the highways may be theoretically accurate, but is an indication of grasping for positives, rather than sound reasoning.

  • Claiming that running more trains will allow increased ridership (really increased capacity) is a fact not in evidence. There is ample capacity, as stated above.

  • Nothing “comfortably fits schedules” like an automobile.

  • Recently announced plans to pilot commuter bus service from Portland to Freeport and points in between will feature more accommodating schedules, and lower prices.

  • As in the Brunswick letter response, one has to measure the nearly irrelevant passenger effects for Freeport against the $68 million capital expense for infrastructure to extend service 28 miles north of Portland, and the need for perpetual operating subsidies and community-borne operating expenses.

  • While Concord Coach does not currently stop in Freeport on its way to and from Portland, arranging such service would not require any significant capital expenditures, and could be accomplished quite easily, one would expect.

  • The value of Downeaster travel to Freeport (and Brunswick) boils down to net effective daily passenger flow and dollar flow. No such data is collected or reported, and we suspect no one has any interest in doing so.

  • Local officials would rather continue lobbying and advocating for taxpayer subsidy of the most expensive, outdated travel options, unconcerned about marginal return on investment. While one can appreciate the allure of a train photo in advertising materials, justifying its existence is for the most part based on emotional appeal rather than tangible, verifiable specifics.

Comments on FreeportUSA letter of August 19, 2014

  • As noted in the Freeport related comments just above, no objective data or other substantiation are provided to support claims of a 'positive impact,' in this case, absent the word 'economic.' In fact, at least some anecdotal evidence exists that the train has had no discernible benefit at all, based on conversations between some Brunswick and Freeport merchants.

  • 'No public transportation option for more than 10 years;' I'm not sure why that is, but it sounds like bus service coming to town in the past may have been discontinued. Was it due to lack of public support? Now, as mentioned above, there is a proposal to pilot a commuter bus system running between Portland and Freeport, with stops at three locations along the way. This has been discussed at Freeport council meetings, as described in the linked article.

  • As noted earlier, the claim that Freeport is a favored destination of 'more than 3 million annual visitors' renders the arrival of 8,000 passengers by train, many who are 'area residents' making 'regular use' of the service, entirely inconsequential to Freeport's economic well being.

  • For the same reason, claiming that average ridership has exceeded projections by 50% is irrelevant and unpersuasive. Apparently, projections were for 15 arriving passengers per day, against the noted average of 22. The source of such estimates has never been disclosed.

  • References to regular resident use obviously undermine the very premise that the Downeaster is an economic boon to Freeport. Such resident use represents discretionary dollars flowing elsewhere, and subtracts from the number of economically gainful visitors arriving on the trains.

  • Similarly, references to “alleviating traffic jams and parking shortages” are ridiculous in the face of the numbers cited and “regular resident use.”

  • One needs to consider the alternatives to train service, such as that operated by Concord Coach to and from Brunswick. This is clearly a far more flexible, affordable, reliable, and versatile approach if public transit is warranted at all.

  • In summary, given the huge taxpayer capital investments, and the nearly 50% perpetual operating subsidies required, the Downeaster is anything but a winning economic proposition, and one that is only worsened by further extensions.

Summary & Conclusion:

All three letters are pretentious and poorly argued. They are dominated by unsubstantiated platitudes, unwarranted claims, and one-sided subjective assertions. A number of points put forward are self-contradictory, and undermine their overarching premise.

The arguments in support of Downeaster benefits, and in support of the Service Optimization Project that includes the MLF in Brunswick, are structurally unsound and completely lacking in hard information. They simply don't meet the high standards that should apply for major expenditures of public taxpayer funds in both capital expenditure and operating expense categories.

Downeaster passenger service was initiated and extended without benefit of diligent and objective analysis, and with no trading off of other public transport options such as buses and motor coaches. Shoring up this statutorily mandated experiment with even further unrecoverable expenditures would be irresponsible and misguided.

Simply stated, the bus is simply more versatile and cost-effective than the train. It represents relatively modest vehicle investment, operates on existing public infrastructure, can turn at any intersection, stop anywhere along its route, and provide far greater frequency than a train, with less noxious emissions and attendant noise. We've yet to hear anyone forward a credible case that the passenger train can do something that the bus can't do.

In conclusion, the three letters are exactly what one would expect in the way of exuberant but unsubstantiated praise, and should not in any way temper your concerns about NNEPRA's Service Optimization plans.

Respectfully,

Pem Schaeffer

Brunswick

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Given the way things work in our age, where there is no such thing as ‘objective truth’ according to modern intellectuals, we’re not hopeful that our efforts will have a lasting effect.

But one must do what one can.

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

1 comment:

  1. Based on the logic used to justify train service to Freeport and Brunswick one could easily justify resurrecting the Concorde to fly between Brunswick and Portland with a stop at Freeport. Of course it would mean lengthening the runway at Portland and building one at Freeport but that is chump change.

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