Saturday, March 28, 2015

Finally! Some serious economic data on the Downeaster!


Where do we begin after a week like this?  A week filled, as Walter Cronkite used to say, “with those events which alter and illuminate our daily lives.”  We’ll have to think long and hard about the two key action words he used, but for now we’ll abide them.  Walter, by the way, was a fraternity brother of ours, which depending on your inclinations, means both of us are unworthy of being taken seriously.

The week was filled, as some of you know, with a nearly 12 hour session on Wednesday at the Brunswick Golf Course, where Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted a full hearing on NNEPRA’s StormWater Permit Application.  That application pertains to the Maintenance and Layover Facility they propose to build in the “Brunswick West” location nearby the Bouchard Drive in-town neighborhood. 

The session was broken into a very formal court-like process for the involved ‘parties’ that ran from 9am to almost 5pm, followed by an evening session that began at 6pm and ran for two hours or more, during which ‘the public’ could comment on the issue.


Then on Thursday, many of us (from both points of view) traveled to the State Capitol in Augusta, where we sat in on a Legislative hearing for the passenger train idling bill sponsored by Senator Stan Gerzofsky.  Excluding the wait time, this hearing consumed something like 2.5 hours of discussion time.

Your humble correspondent testified at both events, and we’ll be passing along the contents of our testimony in upcoming posts.


Now to the maine subject of this post, as suggested by the title.  You may recall that in past efforts, we did our best to see that an objective study was undertaken by our town, with the help of Bowdoin faculty and students, to ascertain the ‘economic benefit’ of the Downeaster to our perfect, or near-perfect community.  We wanted some data to back up claims by well-known public figures that the train “has already had major benefits for the local economy” and similar assertions.

While the graphic just above doesn’t specifically derive from circumstances such as ours, we found the prima facie subject designation entirely appropriate.  We’ve had any number of local authorities, elites, and attitude formation experts rave about the ‘promise’ of the Downeaster as it relates to putting our community ‘on the map,’ sparking economic development of unbridled depth and breadth.

If you care to review the background on this subject on Other Side, hie yourself here:

Sometimes, fate intervenes in the midst of our failures and provides alternate solutions, and that’s what we bring to you today.  Unknowingly, or perhaps unwittingly, various sources provide real insight into our subject, and in the process, blow holes in the widely-accepted articles of faith associated with ‘the promise.’

Let’s begin with this example, in the form of an earnest letter by a local resident to the editors of The Ostrich. The dear lady also testified at the DEP session on Wednesday, essentially reading her letter before the assembled masses.  Read the letter carefully:

In support of the permit

I am writing in support of the storm-water permit application so that the Brunswick Layover Facility can be constructed. My retirement has been enhanced by frequent train trips to Boston to visit museums or enjoy other activities. Addition of a third round trip from Brunswick to Boston would mean that Brunswick residents could enjoy a full day of activities in Boston, including dinner in a fine restaurant and a play or concert and then catch a train all the way back to Brunswick. Looking for my car in a deserted parking lot at the Portland station after the last train arrives at 1:25 a.m. and then driving home to Brunswick alone is not an experience that I wish to repeat.

Alison Johnson

What the letter does, of course, is to document the exact opposite of economic benefit to our local economy.  Instead, it articulates ‘the sucking sound’ the Downeaster represents as it pulls discretionary dollars from local residents and takes them to points south to stimulate the economy in those destinations.  And it asks for more options and service to make hauling dollars south more convenient.

Moving on, let’s look at the testimony of Charles Dunbar, a retired Ambassador and diplomat, who lives in the historic Pennellville area of our nearly perfect town.  We believe his spouse testified at the DEP hearing, though we have no materials at hand documenting what she had to say.

We do, however, have a copy of the remarks Mr. Dunbar submitted to the Transportation Committee of the Maine Legislature on Thursday.  Here it is:

Testimony by Charles Dunbar at the LD 439 hearing on Thursday, 26 March 15

My name is Charles Dunbar, and I love (live?) in Brunswick. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify about my grave concern that the bill you are considering may cripple the present operations and future development of the great service provided to the people of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts by Amtrak's Downeaster.

I begin by expressing my high esteem for NNEPRA, its executive director Patricia Quinn, NNEPRA's staff, and the Downeaster crews, all of whom I have grown to admire from the vantage point of a frequent Downeaster rider. I have watched with growing respect as they surmounted the adversity of the past two winters, unscheduled track repairs, and delays caused by other trains to keep the service healthy and growing.

I recently wrote to Ms. Quinn to commend the imagination and ingenuity of Conductors Peter White and Rob deVilleneuve for finding ways of getting 70 or so Freeport and Brunswick passengers home when a freight train broke down and blocked the track between Portland and Freeport. Although occasionally inconvenienced by being unable to travel on a growing number of full trains both to and from Boston, I am pleased at the triumph this represents for those directly involved and for our state as a whole.

In short, the Downeaster has been an integral part of my life for the past four years, and I have enjoyed almost every minute of the 71 trips Amtrak recently informed me I had made between Brunswick and Boston in the past year. The train facilitates my teachig (teaching?) at Boston University, my access to my doctor and to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where I am being treated, and my wife's and my travel to Boston to visit family and attend cultural events.

My "where-the-wheels-meet-the-steel" Downeaster expertise does not extend to the bill you are considering today, but I cannot see how it could do anything but harm to the Downeaster. I thus hope strongly that it does not become law.

If you’d like to know more about Mr. Dunbar, you can find it here:

It’s clear, of course, that with 71 round trips in the last year between Brunswick and Boston, Charles is highly dependent upon the Downeaster.  That’s an average of almost 1.5 round trips per week.  This ‘integral part of his life’ allows him to work, get health care, visit family, and attend various ‘cultural events.’

Under the circumstances he describes, one might wonder why Charles and his spouse live in Brunswick, since all their meaningful activities take place 160 miles south.  We can only guess what economic benefit this generates for the Boston area, and what loss of local economic activity it represents.  And we can only guess, in the same fashion, why Charles and his bride haven’t taken up residence in greater Boston.  Seems like they’re down there most of the time anyway, for life’s most important pursuits.  Why not clean up their existence by eliminating all that commute time?


Next item: you may or may not remember the “Chain Station,” a bicycle shop that opened a few years ago in the building on Union Street adjacent to the ‘long term parking lot’ provided by the town for Downeaster travelers.

As we understand it, the duo who opened that business did so largely on the expectation that the massive influx of tourists predicted by NNEPRA would generate considerable demand for bike rentals, and that a location nearby the train station would be a winner.  Apparently their expectations were unfounded, and now someone else has decided to run a ‘bike and ski’ business out of the building.  We’ll see, of course, how good their judgment was in making whatever investment they’ve put into their operation.

We wish them the best.  But we’ve seen nothing so far to indicate that basing your economic health on Downeaster train service is a solid proposition.

As a matter of fact, after the Poppycock’s had a casual dinner at a packed ‘venue’ in a nearby town last night, we drove through the Maine Street Station area, at about 8:30 pm…on a Friday night, no less.  We noted a significant number of parking spots available in the general area, though we can’t say definitively what this means.  We do know, however, that the parking situation in our chosen dinner spot was far more congested.

We know…just anecdotes.  But since our betters in town government won’t get behind an effort to come up with more substantive information, it’s all we have, right?

We’ll close with the report on the Wednesday hearing filed and posted by TrainRiders Northeast on the their web page.  As we understand it, the ‘webmaster’ who filed this report is one Bill Lord, a retired TV journalist type who worked behind the scenes for Cronkite, Dan Rather, and others.  He may even have spent time on camera/on screen.

Here’s part of the report Bill filed on the Wednesday hearing:

Marathon DEP Hearing on NNEPRA's Storm Water Runoff Permit

Published on Thursday, 26 March 2015 13:07
Written by TRN Webmaster

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.

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


The photo strip just above contains a candid shot of your faithful correspondent testifying at the hearing, along with another ‘opponent’ of the SWPA permit, and two supporters of the permit, including the beloved NNEPRA supporter we’ve nicknamed ET.  Hopefully you can tell which one of the images is your reporter.

Bill Lord, the reporter, did a horrible job of describing the public session in his last paragraph.  He pretty accurately captured the essence of the ‘against’ contingent, but he completely blew it on the ‘for the permit’ speakers.  They offered not a single bit of data on economic benefits, and instead waxed emotional about how much they love the train, and how much it means to everyone.  No evidence, no facts, no logic.  Just rhetorical homage to the diesel dust spewing behemoth that spends so much time in our midst.

If this is the kind of reporting integrity Bill Lord brought to the news on CBS in his years with the network, we can only mourn the credibility we ascribed to them in our naïve young adult years.  Bill has obviously found, in TRNE, a perfect application for his spinning of reality, complete with video and photographic backup.


Not bad, we suppose, for a project in which taxpayers have invested well over $100 million, and that is looking for another $30 million plus to ‘optimize service.’  Not to mention the future investments required to expand service to NYC, Augusta, Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor, Rockland, and anywhere anyone else wants the choo-choo to come to town.

So what if the service currently runs at a 50% deficit, needing an annual transfusion of $8-9 million from elsewhere to keep the trains running.  This is, after all, economic stimulus and economic benefit. 

Why can’t you see that?

We’re thinking that’s enough for tonight, and for you to assimilate and digest, as uncomfortable as that may and should be.  Make sure you have some Pepcid or Nexium on your nightstand.

Trust us; there’s much more to come, and the volume of reporting ahead of us is growing day by day, almost faster than we can comprehend it.

It won’t be pretty.

Just like us.

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