NH Senate turns away $4M for rail

CONCORD – The New Hampshire Senate voted Thursday against an amendment to restore $4 million to the state’s 10-year transportation plan to study the New Hampshire Capitol Corridor rail expansion project, sending advocates for a commuter rail line that would serve Nashua back to the drawing board.

The amendment failed by a 13-11 vote in the
Republican-led Senate.

While advocates for the rail expansion say the amendment would have provided access to $4 million in mostly federal money to pay for the development phase of the commuter line project, a majority of Republican senators voted against including the money in the 10-year plan.

"The 10-year highway plan which passed the Senate is a fiscally responsible plan that prioritizes roadway projects to be completed in order to continue providing safe and accessible roads and bridges for travelers across our state," said state Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

"The Department of Transportation has done an outstanding job of using savings from completed projects to move quickly down the list of other roadway projects and red-listed bridges in need of repair," she said.

"The 10-year plan will expend more than $22 million from savings to finish projects which include the fourth lane and Exit 4A on I-93 while devoting resources to other priority projects across the state," she said.

Despite the setback, the two largest chambers of commerce in New Hampshire joined with rail advocates to champion the study for a line running from Boston through Lowell, Mass., and into Nashua and as far north as Concord, with a proposed stop at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

Tracy Hatch, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, said the decision was short-sighted.

"In reality, those who voted to deny this funding are taking the position that they don’t want real numbers before they make a final decision on whether rail should come to New Hampshire," she said.

State Sen. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat and sponsor of the rail expansion amendment, said not a penny of the $4 million would come from the state.

"Clearly, I’m disappointed at the vote and thought that they would see the positive assets of bringing rail and this phase of the project," she said. "Obviously, there’s nothing we can do right now. It had to go through the Legislature, it had to be in the 10-year plan – I imagine and I hope it will be an election issue."

Republican Sen. Kevin Avard, of Nashua, was the lone Republican to support the amendment. He received feedback from constituents and fellow lawmakers in favor of the proposal.

"I just thought it was a great idea. It seems to be a no-brainer to just continue the study. I thought Sen. Lasky did a very good job of representing the whole issue," he said. "It’s something that would definitively help the Nashua area and the Manchester area."

An earlier study estimated that the project would create 5,600 permanent jobs and nearly 2 million square feet of real estate development. Critics of the commuter line questioned the accuracy of the economic forecasts, as well as a late 2015 poll indicating that the rail project had 74 percent support among New Hampshire residents.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at 594-6465, cgarofolo@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_Chris.