The Government Oversight Committee held a session this week to hear the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability's position regarding an investigation into NNEPRA's management of its finances and operational supervision of the Downeaster passenger rail service.
State Senator Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick, an outgoing member of the Government Oversight Committee, had forcefully pursued the investigation. The following report is from All Aboard Brunswick which has been closely following the process.
OPEGA found NNEPRA to be a well-run organization with lots of oversight, tasked with the challenge of coordinating operations with Amtrak, Pam Am Railways, the MBTA, Maine DOT, individual station owners, and responsible to the Legislature, Maine DOT, the Federal Rail Authority (FRA), and the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA). Basically, the report said, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along now.”
The report’s three recommendations were:
1. Better communication between NNEPRA and the Legislature, with the Transportation Committee scheduling NNEPRA to present its annual reports at public meetings. In the past, presentations at public meetings have typically been initiated by NNEPRA.
2. As part of the process of establishing passenger rail policy, planning and implementation, the Legislature, MDOT and NNEPRA should rely on objective cost-benefit research and analysis, and provide timely and appropriate forums for public input throughout a project’s duration.
3. Reevaluation of the role of Maine Passenger Rail Advisory Council (PRAC), specifically with regard to improving communication and promoting public input.
There will be a public hearing on the report at the GOC’s next meeting at on . The chair, Sen. Roger Katz, stressed that the public hearing would be on the report, only, and not on any other issues related to rail service in Maine or NNEPRA.
This was in part because the OPEGA Director had mentioned that OPEGA had reviewed many unsolicited comments from the public, some of which had complained about the cost of passenger rail and the feasibility of passenger rail, neither of which were in the scope of OPEGA’s review which was limited to: “Assessment of use of resources; procurement and contracting; oversight and governance; long and short range planning; and achievement of statutory purpose.” In addition, issues were raised in the discussion by the committee on September 15 that included several topics outside the scope of the review established by the GOC.
In response to a concern that “train experts” had not been invited to participate in the report, the OPEGA Director stated that several of the unsolicited comments reviewed by OPEGA staff were from “train experts.” A member of the committee asked that all the unsolicited comments be made available to the committee. The OPEGA Director explained that they were confidential working documents. The committee agreed by consensus that she should contact each of the authors to seek permission to release the documents. It was pointed out that anyone could share their views at the public hearing, as long as they were within the scope of the report.
At the end of the meeting, NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn addressed a couple of issues raised in the committee’s discussion, including the necessity for ongoing tie replacements to avoid having all of them fail at once and the fact that service disruption during track repairs is exacerbated by having only one track, which is shared with freight trains. She also addressed the fact that a contract to shuttle the Amtrak train crew between the Portland layover facility and the Amtrak train that is parked in Brunswick every afternoon is between Amtrak and a local taxi company, and that NNEPRA staff played no role in the negotiations. She thanked OPEGA for their work and said that the report accurately explains NNEPRA’s role. When Sen. Katz asked her to attend the public hearing, she said that she would attend, of course, and that, in the meantime, committee members could contact her at any time on her cell phone.
The committee’s vote to accept the report will occur after the public hearing.