This article first appeared in the Portland Press Herald.
“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”
This is the essence of government, where everything boils down to spending Other Peoples’ Money (OPM), often for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.
Does $10 million sound like a lot of money to you? I sure hope so.
Apparently it isn’t to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), an agency of Maine State Government that operates the Amtrak Downeaster. They chase grants and subsidies at both state and federal levels to keep an otherwise unsustainable passenger rail service in operation, with no contributions from New Hampshire or Massachusetts, from which nearly half of its ridership derives.
NNEPRA has spent well over $100 million in capital funds to establish the Downeaster service, and the total to expand north from Portland to Brunswick alone is nearly $70 million, including municipal dollars. This for a service that needs $10 million in annual subsidy just to keep operating.
NNEPRA is currently executing a $10 million Royal Junction Siding project to construct a four mile passing siding between Freeport and Portland. It’s funded with $8 million in federal dollars and $2 million in state dollars. Two reasons have been forwarded for building the siding: to allow Downeaster passing of Pan Am freight trains, and to allow passing of Downeasters heading in opposite directions between Portland and Brunswick.
The need for this siding has not been subjected to peer review by railroad professionals. One known to the author argues convincingly that it is manifestly unnecessary and wasteful. Two existing bypass options already exist close by, and have been ignored by NNEPRA, MDOT, and the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
On the other hand, NNEPRA needs an increase in daily slots on the Pan Am tracks between Brunswick and Portland to increase daily round trips between Brunswick and Boston from three to five. Pan Am holds all the cards here.
Neither operating argument for the siding is persuasive or common-sensical, leaving only payment of consideration to Pan Am for increasing Downeaster daily track slots as a plausible explanation.
From all appearances then, the project masks gifting OPM to Pan Am Railways, both in capital improvement dollars and make work activity, for increasing the allotted slots. A quid-pro-quo, to borrow a term. It’s not the purpose of NNEPRA, and not in the interest of state and federal taxpayers, to make such gratuitous transfers.
I personally contacted in writing all relevant Legislative committees, the Governor’s Office, and MDOT leadership in January to request an immediate stop to the project, pending a detailed investigation and peer review. Not a single response or acknowledgment ensued.
To summarize, the need for the siding has been grossly misrepresented; the $10 million in OPM is a waste of money we don’t have; and those who could correct this situation have abused the trust the public places in them. Not a soul in the authority chain gives a damn about this.
So there you have it; fraud, waste, and abuse, wrapped in a quid-pro-quo boondoggle.
Now for the second degree. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation has the primary responsibility for oversight of NNEPRA, and they were the principal targets of my written appeal. As part of their so called oversight role, they scheduled a review on March 1, 2018 of Downeaster operations with Patricia Quinn, ED of NNEPRA.
I was there for this sparsely attended event. At best, it was a quintessential dog and pony show. Ms. Quinn went through 32 charts in 20 minutes, a blistering pace as anyone who uses Powerpoint can attest. A few perfunctory questions, primarily about the food service operation, were asked and answered, and she was gone in a flash.
So the use of the term “oversight” is a gross misrepresentation, and a waste of time for all concerned. Most of all, this was a blatant abuse of the public trust invested in the committee to serve as our proxies in overseeing NNEPRA, which needs perennial OPM to keep running. Overlooking is more like it.
I’m not sure what the literal definition of “double whammy” is, but it symbolizes treatment of taxpayers here. And in case you didn’t know, between capital projects and operating subsidies since inception, the Downeaster has cost taxpayers something like $300 million to date, with perpetual annual subsidies on the order of $10 million. That’s 20 years of whammies for you; are you sore yet?
The written contact referred to can be found here:
The original written memo to which this was an addendum can be found here: