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: 

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.

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.


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.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Poppycock: Have you actually seen ridership figures that are verified by ticket sales? I have never been able to obtain them and it would be proof positive that this enterprise is a financial disaster. In passing I would also note that the U.S. Constitution does not give the Congress the power to charter corporations that was negated by John Marshalls ruling in McColloch versus Maryland in 1816 along with just about everything else. His ruling also decreed that Congress could do just about anything that wasn't specifically prohibited and they (Congress) were off to the races. On the state side, our constitution prohibits the legislature from chartering any corporation other than a public municipal one (a town) and delegate to it what power it has been given by the people. Needless to say our own legislature has taken it upon themselves to do much more than make laws and regulations for the defense and benefit of the people of this state.