“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” – Milton Friedman

BRUNSWICK — This is the essence of government, where everything boils down to spending other people’s money, 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, the quasi-governmental agency 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.

The rail authority 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 funding) for initiatives such as track upgrades, the Amtrak train layover facility, site preparation for the Brunswick train station and so forth. This for a service that needs $10 million in annual federal subsidies just to keep operating.

NNEPRA is currently executing the nearly $10 million Royal Junction Siding project to construct four miles of siding between Freeport and Portland. It’s funded with about $8 million in federal money and about $2 million in state money. Two reasons have been presented for building the siding: to allow the Downeaster to pass Pan Am freight trains, and to allow the 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 multiple siding options exist near the train layover facility, but they’ve been ignored by the rail authority, the Maine Department of Transportation 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 commonsensical, 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 giving other people’s money 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.

To request an immediate stop to the project, pending a detailed investigation and peer review, I personally contacted in writing all relevant legislative committees, the Governor’s Office and MDOT leadership in January.

Not a single response or acknowledgment ensued.

To summarize, the need for the siding has been grossly misrepresented; the $10 million in other people’s money is a waste of funds 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 seems to give 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 the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, and they were the principal targets of my written appeal.

As part of their so-called oversight role, they scheduled a review of Downeaster operations March 1, with Patricia Quinn, the rail authority’s executive director.

I was there for this sparsely attended event. At best, it was a quintessential dog and pony show. 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 regular infusions of other people’s money 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.

 

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