BY EDWARD D. MURPHY
PORTLAND — Higher-than-expected construction bids for a train layover garage in Brunswick are forcing Maine rail authorities to look for more money or possibly change plans for the large shed for fixing and cleaning trains.
The station is a key part of the plan to extend the route of Downeaster passenger service north to Freeport and Brunswick this fall, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
Bids opened last week ranged from $12,245,332 to nearly $20 million. Quinn said the authority has been seeking $10 million in a combination of state and federal money to pay for the stopover.
“We’re seeing what our options are,” Quinn said, noting that the authority sought the bids, in part, to get a sense of the likely cost while pursuing grants to pay for the project.
She said the authority has about $5.5 million from unused bond money, grants and other sources. It has a grant application before the U.S. Department of Transportation that could lead to another $3.5 or $4 million for the layover garage, she said.
“We don’t have a budget yet (because) all of the funding is not yet in place,” she said.
The Downeaster is scheduled to expand north in November, Quinn said, and $38 million worth of track improvements are nearing completion.
The trains could still be left overnight in Portland, next to the station off of the Fore River Parkway, Quinn said, but there’s no structure for housing them and, long-term, it’s not an efficient setup.
She said a train that was left in Portland would have to run empty to Brunswick in the morning for the first run of the day. At the end of the day, the train would run, empty again, from Brunswick to Portland.
“It always makes sense to put the garage at the end of your route,” she said. “We want to provide service to Freeport and Brunswick. We want to take those people to and from Boston, instead of just moving trains around.”
Wayne Davis, head of the rail advocacy group Trainriders Northeast, said the lack of an overnight garage in Brunswick would likely mean only two round trips daily north of Portland, instead of the three that are being planned.
“The closer your garage is to the operation, the better it is and the cheaper it is to operate,” he said.
Davis dismissed critics who say that the cost — $50 million between the track improvements and the garage — is an awful lot for an operation that the rail authority estimates will serve an average of 100 riders a day. The five daily round trips between Portland and Boston carry an average of 1,300 riders a day.
“Nobody really knows until the thing runs,” Davis said, noting that the first estimates for the number of passengers between Portland and Boston was 100,000 a year and its has grown to about five times that number. “The Downeaster has become probably the greatest example in the nation of ‘build it and they will come.’ ”
But state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, whose district includes the site of the proposed garage, said the high cost is a reason for the authority to find another place for it.
He said a site in an industrial park or another non-residential location would allow the authority to not worry about disturbing the neighborhood by moving trains around in the middle of the night.
“This could be an opportunity for a second look, a really hard look,” Gerzofsky said. “Money is tight and it’s going to be very difficult finding this money.”