Passenger rail records historic spending as Downeaster turns 20


PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Twenty years after Amtrak’s first Downeaster launched into darkness and uncertainty on a cold December morning, there is light at the end of the tunnel regarding the plans to expand passenger rail transport thanks to the $ 1 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

Rail service receives its biggest boost since Amtrak’s inception, including the lion’s share, up to $ 100 billion over the next five years. The money will fund major projects to improve service in the Northeast Corridor that have been underway for years, before the coronavirus pandemic caused millions of American commuters to start working from home.

“We have to make hay while the sun is shining because we have never made so much money as an industry,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy organization. railways in Washington, DC

Potential projects include a new tunnel over the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, a new bridge between Washington, DC and Virginia, and a replacement for the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel. Outside the northeast, rail advocates anxiously await the reestablishment of service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, which was taken offline by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Maine, for example, city leaders want to see Downeaster’s service from Boston to Brunswick extended to other parts of the state, and a bill signed by the governor would look into the matter.

When the Downeaster launched on December 15, 2001, there was no guarantee that a rail link between Maine’s largest city, Portland, and New England’s largest city would be a success.

Today it is considered one of Amtrak’s most successful regional routes, setting annual ridership records between 2010 and 2019, and was later extended north to Brunswick, Maine.

Despite changes in ridership caused by COVID-19, Amtrak is optimistic about the future of passenger rail. It hopes to provide more frequent rail service on existing routes and expand service to more than 160 new communities and 20 million additional passengers per year by 2035.

The infrastructure bill includes a significant down payment: $ 66 billion in guaranteed funds for passenger and freight rail transport over five years, part of which goes to Amtrak and part to the Federal Railroad Administration for discretionary grants . Additional annual appropriations would bring funding to around $ 100 billion if Congress provided funding at authorized levels.

But the biggest investment of its kind in Amtrak doesn’t meet all needs, said spokesman Jason Abrams. Amtrak will continue to work with Congress and the Biden administration to ensure a consistent flow of funding “to make rail a vital transportation option in this country,” Abrams said.

Jeans-Gail said one of the keys will be to prioritize passenger rail lines that offer the flexibility to serve a wider variety of passengers, beyond simple commuters to central business districts.

The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates Amtrak’s Downeaster, is also optimistic.

The pandemic has dispersed many workers further from city centers, making rail more attractive for them to commute to work, while less car-loving young adults have embraced public transportation, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA.

“The pandemic has reset things. People will come back. But they’re going to come back differently, ”she said. “The changes caused by the pandemic continue to make the Downeaster relevant. “

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