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Off rail: The study we don't need

January 21. 2013 8:09PM

New Hampshire is poised to waste $1.6 million of other people's money (and $300,000 of our own) to "study" whether commuter rail is viable in this sparsely populated state. The answer is already well-established. It is "no." Alas, this pipe dream is floated almost entirely upon waves of cash taken involuntarily from nameless, faceless taxpayers from far away, and so its proponents, seeing all benefit and no cost, advance it with the fervor of children set loose upon an amusement park with mommy and daddy's money hot in their pockets.

Last year the all-Republican Executive Council voted against spending $1.9 million to "study" whether commuter rail would work for New Hampshire. Supposedly the study would be objective. But the New Hampshire Department of Transportation already has studied commuter rail and determined that it would not be cost-effective. And the passion with which commuter rail believers have pushed this allegedly objective study indicates that they all believe it will reach the conclusion they want it to reach.

When the legislative Capital Budget Overview Committee approved the study two weeks ago, Nashua Board of Aldermen President Brian McCarthy, a rail supporter, called it "great news" and was quoted by The Telegraph of Nashua as saying "this gets us closer to having rail as a reality."

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau told The Telegraph, "Getting this study done is so important because whether you're for rail or not for rail, unless the study is done, we're not going to be able to move forward or not move forward."

Well. It does not take a $1.9 million study to "not move forward" with commuter rail. All it takes is the realization that the money to build a rail line (estimated at $300 million, but likely more) and operate it (estimated at about $8 million a year, but likely more) is not available. The state does not have it. Nashua has nothing close to it. And Washington, $16.4 trillion in debt and counting, has run deficits of more than $1 trillion a year for each of the last four years because it hasn't the money to fund all of its existing commitments.

Sure, commuter rail is popular in Nashua. That is for two reasons. One, people think a line will run through the Gate City. It might not. Two, they expect others to pay for it. They might not.

The primary allure of passenger rail is that it is something for nothing. Public officials in cities that lie on potential future rail lines perceive massive benefits at tiny costs. They envision thousands of new residents and lots of business growth, with the costs borne primarily by federal and state taxpayers, not local taxpayers.

The 3-2 Democratic majority on the Executive Council, which is the next body to consider whether to approve taxpayer money for this "study," is expected to approve the study. Unlike the last council, the new one is receptive to the idea that fiscal responsibility means spending other people's money on one's own luxuries.

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