Rail group keeps Granite State commuter train project on the tracks
But the dream lives on, according to Peter Burling, a member of the state’s Rail Transit Authority. “Commuter rail still has a pulse,” he said on Monday, “and it’s beating in Nashua. The government of Nashua is in a fine position to get it done.”
Burling’s comment came in an interview after a panel presentation in Concord on Monday titled, “Commuter Rail in New Hampshire — Economic Catalyst or Multi-Million Dollar Mistake.” He was alluding to the fact that Nashua officials are trying to research their options and, if possible, put together a coalition that could do an end-run around the Executive Council.
A $3.65 million contract to study a Concord-to-Boston rail line was rejected by the council by a 3-2 vote in March. Executive Councilors David Wheeler, R-Milford, Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, and Dan St. Hilaire, R-Concord, all voted to oppose the project. Ray Burton, R-Bath, and Ray Wieczorek, R-Manchester, supported it.
“New Hampshire politics just threw a wrench into this,” said Burling, former chair of the authority who said on Monday that he stepped down as chairman because he’d become a political lightning rod for opponents of the project.
Soon after the Executive Council decision, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau told the city’s board of aldermen that she was talking with the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration and representatives of communities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to keep the idea on track.
“I think we still have a shot at getting the study done by someone other than the state,” she said after the Monday presentation, where she was a quiet observer in the audience. Lozeau said she first needs to determine if Nashua could become chief administrator for the $3.65 million.
Assuming the money is still available, and Nashua would be acceptable to the federal transit authorities, Lozeau would then have to find private and government sources for the 12 percent of the contract cost not covered by the federal grant.
“I think (rail) is still alive because I think people who are involved in New Hampshire development understand how important it is that we have that competitive edge, and they are very dedicated to this subject,” she said.
Staying competitive with areas served by rail, and the economic impact of the project, were recurring themes with supporters on the panel at Monday’s event, hosted by the state Business and Industry Association. Burling, one of the panelists, pointed to the successful rail projects to the east and west of the I-93 corridor, and warned that “everyone around us is doing something amazing. We are becoming the donut hole in the economic system.”
The arguments for and against the “Capital Corridor” project have been consistent since it was first proposed nearly a decade ago. Opponents say it is too costly and inefficient, and would require subsidies of $8 million to $10 million a year to operate.
Proponents counter that all forms of transportation are subsidized to one degree or another, and that the return in terms of economic development will offset the costs, not to mention the positive impact on the environment and highway congestion.
Monday’s discussion boiled down in large part to a disagreement about the scope of economic impact. “The economic development aspect is overstated,” said panelist Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, referring to the communities that support rail. “Everyone who wants it says there would be a lot of economic development, but they won’t risk it themselves, because deep down inside they are skeptical. They don’t think it would be a net plus. They know in their hearts, they would be on the hook.”
Jay Minkarah, economic development director for Manchester, was a panelist in favor of the project. He said the availability of a rail connection at T.F. Green International gives the Rhode Island airport a definite advantage over Manchester-Boston Regional, which has seen declining air traffic.
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