Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Conflict of Visions….Transportation Style


We’ve been updating you lately about what’s going on in the Lewiston-Auburn area on the transportation front, specifically regarding expansion of Downeaster passenger rail service to the area.  Including the matter of our briefing a related Council in Augusta last week on the benefits of such service observed in Brunswick, and the expert projections that no doubt set the stage for the expansion to Brunswick.  Certain ‘interests’ in Brunswick still believe in those projections, so much so they implored Auburn officials to ignore any facts that would suggest otherwise.

To review the bidding, the state budget includes language addressing a $500,000 planning study to extend passenger rail from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn and beyond.  Each of those towns recently voted to come up with their $50,000 share of the cost, and the state will provide the other $400,000.  Presumably the result will be a plan costing less than the $107 million to $234 million estimate in this 2011 MDOT analysis: MDOT Aug 11 Portland to LA Feas.  Including a nice new MLF in that area, and an annual operating subsidy of $2 to $8 million a year.

All of which evokes memories from the salad-days of passenger rail:


From Wikepedia:

One of the most popular and busiest trains to be operated out of Portland was the Boston-Portland-Bangor "Flying Yankee" route which was run jointly by the MEC and Boston & Maine Railroads making three daily departures (two southbound and one northbound) from Portland Union Station. On April 1, 1935 this service was inaugurated with a then ground breaking diesel-powered stainless steel articulated streamline train set. Based at Portland, its three unit 142-seat integrated consist was the first such non-steam streamliner to enter service in North America east of the Mississippi, and just the third overall in the United States after the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's almost identical "Pioneer Zephyr" (1934–1960) the Union Pacific Railroad's M-10000 (1934–1942).

The "Flying Yankee" covered about 730 total miles a day on its Monday through Saturday runs over a Portland-Boston-Portland-Bangor-Portland-Boston-Portland loop during which it reached speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. After a little over 23 years in operation during which the three unit train set traveled over five and a quarter million miles, the streamlined "Flying Yankee" made its final revenue runs on May 7, 1957 and was then retired from service.

Who knows how long it will take to do the new planning study, massage the numbers so they don’t look near as ridiculous as those in the 2011 study, go in search of the money, and then, if it can be ‘found,’ roll the dice and start spending it.  We’re thinking what….seven to ten years before any service could be available to carry distinguished retired diplomats and professionals in the area to Boston for their academic employment, refined dining and cultural events, and medical care.  All of this will be done, of course, by properly motivated government operatives spending OPM efficiently and carefully as only they know how.

Now, all of a sudden comes along a wild-eyed entrepreneur from the private sector who already operates a sizable collection of motor coach routes in Maine and nearby states.  That would be Harry Blunt, owner of Concord Coach and related enterprises.  We alerted you to the presser that would take place yesterday in the L-A area.  The photo at the top is the bus that was there for the event, and the photo just below is of Maine Turnpike Authority ED Peter Mills speaking at the event.


The Sun Journal, the esteemed journalistic guardian of freedom in the area, was so excited about the event that they went apoplectic and could not attend.  No matter; whatever coverage they might have provided would have smelled of rotting grapes, and disdain for private sector interference in the proper province of Government.

The net result, whether they like it or not, is that area residents will soon have convenient and proven means of transportation to Portland, where they can connect with other links….rail, bus, or air…to other places.  Just as important, local and state decision makers will be able to gauge local demand for such transport options.

Which undoubtedly scares the Sun Journal and local and state politicians all to hell.  What if the buses start running, and ridership is extremely low, or worse?  How will passenger rail expansion at orders of magnitude greater OPM costs be justified, rationalized, and sustained?

On the other hand, what if bus ridership exceeds expectations/projections?  Simple enough…expand the schedule accordingly with additional scheduled runs.  That should take what….maybe a month or two?

So, two parallel efforts are underway.  One was tried a long, long time ago, and went defunct nearly 60 years ago.  Passenger rail fantasists are trying to resurrect the idea at colossal public expense and with years of effort lying ahead.  All for unknown/unproven ridership demand.

The other was conceived in recent months, and will soon be operating with minimal public expense and virtually no infrastructure complications, and be as flexible as you could want in responding to lesser or greater demand.

Which leads us to the following obvious point.  NNEPRA is planning to expand Brunswick to Portland Downeaster service to 6 round trips per day, and will need at least $22 million in OPM investments in infrastructure to make it happen.  Even though there is no credible, established demand for such expansion in service.

Instead, why aren’t those plans being put on the shelf in favor of an expansion to the existing Concord Coach bus service that connects Brunswick to Portland and Boston?  We could even imagine the loop originating in Bath, then taking the bypass off Rte 1 to make a stop in Topsham, coming across the bridge to Brunswick Station, and then heading south to Portland, with a stop in Freeport if considered useful.

This expansion in service could begin virtually immediately, without any of the infrastructure complications and expenses involved in expanding Downeaster round trips to our town.  Just as important, it would be a useful demonstration project to gauge regular passenger demand for service between this area and points south.  Schedules could be adjusted quickly and efficiently.

Now we have to ask why ‘local leaders’ aren’t lobbying for just such an evolution?  Are they too devoted to spending millions upon millions in OPM to address a ‘need’ which is absolutely, totally unproven?  Are they too committed to the Field of Dreams approach to risk their own political capital in taking a stand opposing the ‘community consensus?’  Have they taken a dip in the Kool-Aid tank once too often?

                       Amish horse and buggy

Are they so committed to resurrection of “legacy transportation” models that they can’t see the horse-manure they’re spreading everywhere, at the bidding of a group of elites among the carriage set, at the expense of the populace at large?  And in the process, furthering the expansion of a bureaucracy that would not exist in a rational world?

Are they too excited about what could well become a white elephant smack dab in the heart of “pristine” downtown Brunswick?

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