Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When a bubble bursts, what do you suppose you might find inside?

You may remember this post of ours on the specifics of a Maintenance and Layover Facility as exemplified by that belonging to the Virginia Railway Express, a heavily traveled commuter line that runs between suburban Virginia and Union Station in Washington DC.  The facility is shown in the photo below, with lots of room, and safely away from residential neighborhoods.

Virginia Rail Express MLF photo

In that post, we wrote the following, which we intended to serve as a subtle tap on the shoulder to alert readers to the possibility that something more than meets the eye may be afoot.  Note in particular the second paragraph (the one that begins Hmmmm.)

One can’t help but ask why a train system that carries 1,500 passengers average per day needs an MLF on the order of 6 times larger than a train system that carries 15,000 a day, or ten times more! 

Hmmmm; maybe there are more expansive plans for the Brunswick MLF that aren’t being revealed.  Could it be a maintenance facility for more than Downeaster train sets, justifying a scale and investment well beyond what otherwise might be sensible?  Could other ‘parties’ be involved?

We’d ask The Shadow to check in and take an assignment, but he just hasn’t been very helpful in recent months.  So we’ll pursue other sources to see what we can find out.

We’ve been pondering this possibility, and doing some of the grunt work we’d really like  the shadow to do.

Bursting the bubble?

As we lazed over the weekend, a bit of a zinger came over the transom that we believe bears on this subject, at least tangentially. 

We submit that a treatise by Benet Pols, current chair of the Brunswick Town Council, which we just discovered, serves admirably as the point of a pin to burst a local bubble.  Some time ago, we reported on a statement Pols publicly delivered to NNEPRA in August 2011.  We posted it here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/219120483/Benet-Pols-statement-to-NNEPRA-August-2011.

We think this latest nugget is at least as refreshingly honest and straightforward as the item above.  It’s on his blog at this address: http://benetpols.org/downeaster-extension/

It’s a lengthy post, and one of the challenges in reading it is getting a firm fix on the chronology.  There is no date of origin at the top of the post; Pols himself thinks he posted it in 2011 sometime.  Comments at the end date to late 2012, after the train began running.  Midway through the text is a reference to 2014.  Let’s just say that the item is an ‘work in progress,’ subject to update as the author sees fit.

Germane to our thesis here, we find these passages the most interesting (emphasis ours:)

Later the town council agreed to rent back the train station/visitor center from JHR.  We paid five years rent–$220,000–in advance. At the time, it was the only way to keep the Maine Street Station project alive. Keeping the project alive was necessary to getting the train service.  The funds to rent back the train station came from the Brunswick Development Corporation (BDC). That first five year lease expires soon; the town will be paying $44,000 per year rent to JHR.

One thing that is clear, especially now that the train arrives every morning at 6:40, the controversial layover facility in the Brunswick West Neighborhood is not—and never was—in any way necessary to bring the train to Brunswick.  From it’s inception the proposed extension of service to Brunswick included just two round trips.  Many people have confused the arrival of Amtrak service with a second issue, the placement of the Amtrak maintenance facility.  The confusion stems from the rail authority’s public relations effort to link the two.

In April 2011 plans for a potential layover facility adjacent to the Bouchard and Hennesey Drive neighborhoods first began to appear in public after the zoning board of appeals granted a variance allowing for the 40,000 square foot structure; just 20,000 square feet was allowed by existing zoning regulations.  It remains unclear how long NNEPRA had the plans, or for how long town officials knew of the proposed plan, but its first public airing was at the April 2011 zoning board of appeals meeting.  Neighborhood concerns quickly coalesced and an organized opposition to the layover facility followed.

The size of the facility planned has grown too. It’s now a nearly 60,000 square foot building. It’s cost has also ballooned. In August 2011 when the site was chosen, the proposed construction number was $4 million, NNEPRA had budgeted $5 million. By November of 2011 the projected cost rose to $7.5 million. As of early 2014 the cost has risen to $12 million.

NNEPRA, the rail authority managing the Downeaster, painted the neighborhood as obstructing progress.  NNEPRA implied that if the layover facility was built in Brunswick as many as five to seven round trips a day to Brunswick could occur.

This is simply false.  NNEPRA and Amtrak do not own the railroad tracks themselves; the tracks are owned by Pan Am, a freight carrier.  Use of Pan Am’s tracks is by permission and as he (sic) result of a contract between Pan Am and NNEPRA.  Pan Am chooses to give priority for the use of its tracks to freight.  Frankly, Pan Am does not want the passenger service to interfere with its moneymaker: freight.  To this point Amtrak only has the use of the tracks during the two slots noted in the linked schedule.

Until, and if, a second set of tracks is built south of Freeport allowing for the passenger and freight trains to pass simultaneously, there will be no more than two passenger trains running to and from Brunswick.  This would be true if the layover facility existed right now, or if it is never built at all.  Until additional rails are built and Pan Am agrees to their use for passenger service there will be no more than two round trips.

NNEPRA has always known this; town officials, and anyone else seriously following the issue, have always known this.  It spite of this NNEPRA, town staff and the Brunswick Downtown Association lobbied townsfolk to “support the train” each time the maintenance facility was up for discussion.

Currently, the plans for the layover facility seem to be on a back burner.  NNEPRA grossly underestimated the costs of the facility and have had difficulty securing the financing necessary to move forward.  NNEPRA has applied for funds to build the facility while simultaneously applying for the funds to build the necessary by-pass tracks south of Freeport.  To this point each application has been rejected.

Given the tenuous nature of the operational funding, the yearly struggle to keep funding at just current levels for operation, the necessity of a special waiver for the use of CMAQ funds as operating expenses, and the uncertainty of any future federal funding for Amtrak, spending now on capital improvements seems imprudent.

Based on the foregoing, we declare that the QED  lamp is lit: bubble burst about the necessity of building the MLF to keep the train running, at least in the view of a town official who should have the straight skinny.


So what might  be found inside the bubble?

An engaged friend with an insatiable thirst for knowledge was doing a little research lately, and came upon this document:



The document is over 100 pages long, and is well worth scanning through.  For one thing, you’ll find that a good deal more respect has been paid to local zoning regulations, environmental permitting, and sensitivity to residential neighborhoods than has been the case with NNEPRA’s Maintenance and Layover Facility project as proposed in the Brunswick West location.

That aside, the main point we want to make today is that the report contains this passage in Paragraph 3.3 on page 20:


It’s important to note that words have meanings in this context.  Especially words like layover, service and inspection, and maintenance.  This table is found on page C-7 of the document:


So what do we take from all this?  Among other things, that we must be attentive to terminology, purpose, and intended use.  In the VRE case, we found this photo showing an interior that looks like it’s intended only to address fairy minor and routine activities:


Contrast this to the photo below showing an MBTA engine in a far more complex facility:

This set up accommodates simultaneous multi-level work.  While cabins and systems are being serviced above, detailed inspections of running gear and full maintenance can be accomplished below.

One More Thing

While dubbing around for resource material on this subject, we came across this interesting tidbit:

About  http://www.somervillebydesign.com/about/


Our Planning Methodology

For generations, the typical system of urban planning utilized a “Decide-Present-Defend” public engagement model that sidelined local residents in participatory decision-making. Somerville by Design is different: it directly involves residents in urban design and economic development decisions facing their neighborhood, early on and in a meaningful way. The Somerville by Design model is best described as “Outreach-Dialogue-Decide-Implement”. This new method for planning acknowledges that the best results usually occur when informed residents collaborate with public officials to establish a vision for their neighborhood’s future. That vision is created from the ground up, using a series of predictable and transparent steps:

How’s that for a contrast to how things have proceeded in Cape Brunswick, the richest little town in America?  Compliments of NNEPRA and assordid ‘public officials’ in municipal government, along with various business influences.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, right?

Can someone call us a taxi please?  We’re through here.

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