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NH Rail Transit Authority wants voice on study

Union Leader Correspondent

January 11. 2013 11:15PM

MERRIMACK - Two days after the state Capital Budget Overview Committee supported moving ahead with a rail feasibility study, members of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority stressed that they want to be included in the study process.

Katherine Hersh, member of the executive committee for the NH Rail Transit Authority, said Friday that the Authority should have a representative overseeing the contract for the study.

"Then we would have a comfort level - making sure the best interests of the Rail Transit Authority are being incorporated into the entire process," said Hersh.

On Wednesday, the Capital Budget Overview Committee agreed to pursue a $1.9 million Capitol Corridor rail study using state toll credits to match federal transit authority dollars. The proposal must still be voted on by the Executive Council next month, which - if approved - would enable federal funds to pay for $1.6 million of the cost of the study, and the state will match the federal money with $360,000 in toll credits from the New Hampshire Turnpike System.

Members of the Rail Transit Authority's executive committee are hopeful and optimistic the study will be further supported, as the majority of councilors have expressed positive interest in the study.

"We have an enormous amount of work to do, and we need to get organized on how we do it," said Thomas Mahon, chairman of the group. "Fortunately, we have more focus now. But still, we are going to have to get much more active than we have been in the past."

Meeting at the Nashua Regional Planning Commission office in Merrimack, members of the executive committee were joined by Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas on Friday morning. Now that one hurdle in the long process to bring commuter rail back to New Hampshire has been overcome, Mahon said it is crucial that the state Department of Transportation and the Rail Transit Authority stay in constant communication about the initiative.

In addition to finding a representative for the Authority, Hersh suggested that a memo of understanding be drafted to detail specific oversight of the study. She also recommended that the Authority investigate the possibility of becoming an independent organization, separate from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

"What are the steps needed so that we are positioned and ready if we want to do that?" asked Hersh. "I think that is what we want to work towards - having our own budget."

Mahon said he intends on setting up a meeting with the governor to discuss the matter. Former governor John Lynch signed legislation creating the Rail Transit Authority in 2007, and it serves as an administratively attached agency to DOT. It is charged with overseeing the development of commuter rail in New Hampshire.

While commuter rail is its first priority, the group has talked about adding freight rail to its mission.

"The original charge to us was very narrowly defined," said Mahon, who believes adding freight rail is a critical part of the Capitol Corridor. "It will be important to deal with that issue."

State representatives will also have to address the matter of freight soon, as proposed legislation has been filed to add freight rail to the ongoing commuter rail efforts in the state. U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster (D-District 2) said in a statement this week that she is glad the rail study is moving forward.

"Expanding commuter rail in this region is the right thing to do for our workers, our businesses and our state's economy, and it will bring significant economic benefits to Nashua and beyond," Kuster said in the statement.

Other elected officials, including state senators Peggy Gilmour and Bette Lasky, also praised the committee for approving the use of toll credits for the rail study.

Rail has been a contentious issue among elected officials in the state. Last year, former executive councilor David Wheeler was blasted by Nashua officials for his opposition to spend $3.7 million on the same rail study. Wheeler cast the deciding vote on the study, which was rejected with a vote of 3-2 by the Executive Council in March. At the time, Wheeler maintained that not all Nashua residents support the idea of bringing rail back to the state. He claimed it would cost about $300 million to bring train tracks from Lowell, Mass., to Concord.

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