Friday, March 19, 2010

Train coming right on time to Brunswick, Maine

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Train coming right on time to Brunswick, Maine | Railway Track & Structures The air smelled of fresh paint, not beer and food, March 18 inside Byrnes Irish Pub, Maine Today reports. Good reason. The business had hustled to have a grand opening March 17, just in time to be mobbed on St. Patrick's Day. Maine Street Station is a new mixed-use development in Brunswick that will include retail space, offices, a train station and perhaps a Concord bus operation. Patrick Byrnes is hopeful that the turnout is a sign of things to come. His family chose to expand here, from Bath, to take advantage of the planned arrival of Amtrak's Downeaster train service in 2012.

 

At Brunswick's new Maine Street Station, the pub has a door facing the platform to entice passengers who step off the train to come inside. Byrnes said he will try to line up the pub's hours with the train schedule, to cater to Bowdoin College students and their families, tourists and other travelers.

"I think (the Downeaster) is going to be great for the area," he said. "It probably will change the face of downtown Brunswick."

That expectation was on the minds of other business owners. They gathered nearby on the Bowdoin campus to hear a presentation by Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster. Her visit came seven weeks after the authority won a $35-million federal award to replace track and upgrade 30 miles of rail bed between Portland and Brunswick. Construction could begin this summer, creating 200 jobs, Quinn said.

Brunswick is in transition, with its naval air station shutting down and leaders searching for new commercial enterprises. The train service has the potential to help with the transformation, Quinn told the Brunswick Downtown Association.

Along the corridor between Portland and Boston, where it has run since 2001, the Downeaster has attracted businesses, homes and other development that benefit from being near the train. Over time, Quinn said, Brunswick and neighboring Freeport can be gateways for year-round service that could extend up the coast to Rockland.

A study done for the authority by the Center For Neighborhood Technology estimated that a passenger train running between Portland and Rockland could generate $3 billion in private investment between now and 2030. It could create 10,000 jobs and generate $55 million in taxes, according to the study.

Early stages of such investment are evident near the eight train stations between Portland and Boston, she said.

But the transformation is a process, Quinn said. It took years to get federal funds, add equipment and build ridership between Portland and Boston. And the job's not done.

Brunswick will start with basic service and a 50-minute ride to Portland, a trip that takes no more than a half-hour by car. The proposed schedule assumes that buses will fill a gap in return service south.

"This is a first step," Quinn said. "This is what we can afford to do right now."

In Portland, Concord Coach Lines shares space with the Downeaster and has a joint ticketing agreement for bus and train riders. That model may extend to Brunswick, said Harry Blunt, Concord Coach Lines president.

Maine Eastern Railroad also is expected to locate at Maine Street Station. The railroad runs seasonal excursion trains between Brunswick and Rockland.

Maine Street Station is a mixed-use complex that will include retail space, offices, condominiums and an inn, as well as the train station. Small businesses including Byrnes Irish Pub, the Scarlet Begonias bistro and Park Row Interiors are now open, and both the town and the college have space in the first phase.

Not everyone is happy about the proposed inn. Peter Anastos, the Yarmouth businessman who owns the Brunswick Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites, filed a lawsuit this month over a tax break the town is giving to the project's developer. But business people who attended Quinn's presentation seemed excited.

"This is a big step up for Brunswick," said Eileen Hornor, co-owner of The Brunswick Inn.

Passenger train service also can be an amenity that draws people to settle in Brunswick, said Michael Feldman, a former town councilor and an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. It may not be a top priority of young families, he said, but the idea of a train to Portland and Boston is very appealing to older buyers. They ask him about it when they're shopping for homes, he said.

"The upscale parts of this town are very interested in public transportation," he said.

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