2015-11-06 / Front Page

Full steam ahead on train station project

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The drive to bring a seasonal stop for the Amtrak Downeaster to Kennebunk got kicked into high gear last week when selectmen voted 6-1 to have Town Manager Barry Tibbetts sign all documents needed to apply for state and national grant funding.

Those grants, available from the Maine and U.S. departments of Transportation, will cover $800,000 of the $1.1 million project to refurbish the old Boston & Maine Railroad Station on Depot Street.

“This is quite a complex project because of the requirements for the federal monies,” Tibbetts said at the board’s Oct. 27 meeting.

Construction of the new platform is expected to be complete by 2017 or 2018, Tibbetts said. However, the town manager said the Downeaster could begin making local stops sooner than that, important because, according to Amtrak, the Kennebunks region is second only to downtown Portland for places visited by riders of the Downeaster. Tibbetts said that at the Nov. 10 board meeting he will unveil plans to move in an existing train platform as a temporary solution until the old station is rebuilt, possibly leading to train stops as soon as next year.

However, not all selectmen were on board with that idea.

“Personally, I would prefer to do it right, rather than spinning our wheels trying to get a temporary platform in here,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said.

Still, only Selectman Ed Karytko voted against initiating the project.

His concern seemed to be that, according to the grant applications, the town will be on the hook for any cost overruns above the $1.1 million, meaning unforeseen issues could cost local taxpayers more than the $300,000 match needed to get the state and federal dollars. The town also will have to pay maintenance costs on the new station, estimated by Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder at $45,000 per year.

Tibbetts said the maintenance costs, as well as any prject overruns, would come out of one of three tax increment financing districts in town.

“And when the TIFs run out, that goes right into payment from the general fund,” Karytko said.

Tibbetts acknowledged that would be the case, but said the three TIF funds in question are not expected to dry up until 2028 at the soonest, and 2040, at the latest.

Karytko also questioned how the town can use TIF funds at all, given that the train station does not sit in any of the designated districts. Tibbetts said money can be directed to projects outside the districts if they can be reasonably claimed to meet goals within the district, such as improving public transportation.

Although Selectman Richard Morin ultimately voted to push the project forward, he too found some fault with the funding model.

“’ Take it out of the TIF’ – six words we have learned to almost hate around here,” he said.

Still, Tibbets said the fact that Kennebunk will manage the project gives it some control over costs, even given certain state and federal mandates it will have to meet.

Osterrieder also defended his cost estimates.

“Some people try to make a thing sound really good,” he said. “I try to make it sound real.”

Still, Morin and Karytko noted that Osterrieder’s estimates did not include staff time spent administering the project, or the time of town employees, who will do the actual work.

“But that’s true of a lot of projects we do,” Osterrieder said.

Meanwhile, Cluff suggested the town could lean on local resources to help pay for station maintenance in order to mitigate the hit to the TIF pools.

“We have a lot stronger chamber of commerce than we did just a year ago,” he said. “I think there’s some opportunity to tap that as well.”

One of the reasons behind the seemingly large up-front cost to resume passenger rail services is that rehabilitation of the old station has a long-term goal in mind.

“It will start as a seasonal but it has the opportunity to go to a full-season train stop with only minimal costs,” Tibbetts said.

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