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Thursday, October 1, 2009

State’s rail plans thwarted, but rail to city still possible

CONCORD – Commuter rail supporters tried to put the best face on the state’s refusal Wednesday to apply for $300 million in federal stimulus money to create a high speed train corridor from Boston through Nashua and on to Concord. The setback, though, could create an opening for rail to Nashua.

The refusal of track owner Pan Am Systems Inc. to negotiate with the state for right-of-way purchase rights effectively blocks the state from getting a slice of $8 billion in grants that the Obama administration will award next year, Transportation Commissioner George Campbell said.

“The competition for this money is too intense. The federal government made it clear to us if there is no operating agreement, there’s no point in making an application or the state just loses its credibility for the future,” Campbell said.

High-speed projects totaling $102 billion have already applied for these limited dollars. The deadline to apply is Friday.

This setback has Campbell placing a renewed look at bringing rail service back first only to the Massachusetts state line in Nashua next to the Pheasant Lane Mall.

This limited commuter rail effort would require building a rail spur and train station next to the mall parking lot and thus not require Pan Am’s support, Campbell explained.

The capital costs for it would be $80 million and Campbell said he’s planning to ask the Legislature next year to support it.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the capital corridor has been stymied for now, but I really remain hopeful that we’re going to bring commuter rail back to the state in some fashion,” Campbell said.

“I have given up hope of ever convincing Pan Am to come back to the table.”

Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, said extending the project only to Nashua makes sense, but taxpayers have to realize that’s still going to cost them.

“I’ve seen estimates that even with a robust fare box of customers we’d be looking at needing an annual subsidy of $5 million just to bring rail to Nashua,” Campbell said.

“As noble a goal as commuter rail may be, I just don’t see where there’s that much money laying around in Concord to do this.”

Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority applied for a $1.4 million planning grant last month regarding the Boston-to-Concord corridor. Campbell said he’s optimistic the state will learn in December that it’s won that grant.

Regarding the Lowell-to-Concord project, the state is seeking the support of Amtrak to step in and become the operator of the project. Campbell explained federal law precludes a state from running service over a private rail line by another private rail operator.

This high-speed rail network would run on 78 miles of upgraded tracks between Boston and Concord and connecting Concord, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and Nashua, with Boston’s North Station.

Amtrak runs the popular Downeaster rail service from Maine to Boston that makes two stops in New Hampshire and runs along sections of Pan Am-owned track.

Pan Am President David Fink said he’s willing to talk with Amtrak but said it makes little sense to him to look at these projects in a down economy.

“I deal with Amtrak on a daily basis with the Downeaster, but so far, Amtrak hasn’t contacted us,” Fink said. “Talking about high speed trains in the times we are in economically just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Fink said it makes more sense for the state to seek a cheaper, short-term, demonstration to test the market for commuter trains.

“Why spend all the taxpayer’s money when we don’t know it yet if there’s enough interest in it,” Fink said. “We should try a cheap, bare-bones, year or two demonstration project to see if there is any real interest, for goodness sake.”

DOT Chief Campbell said Pan Am initially had wanted to be the operator of the rail service. Last spring, Pan Am engaged in talks with the assumption the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority would run the line until they broke off on June 30.

“It’s ironic that Pan Am has come full circle from wanting to do this on their own to now to blocking all progress whatsoever,” Campbell said.

Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams said there’s too much support among the public and business community for commuter rail to fail.

“We’ve had some short-term successes with this project and as the commissioner says, there are some other long-term options that we have that don’t involve Pan Am,” Williams said.

The state has time enough to regroup and seek from the Obama administration next year when it awards another $5 billion in high-speed rail grants.

“Support for commuter rail is growing and I think we’ll have many other opportunities to get this project fully funded,” Williams added.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua telegraph.com.