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Thursday, February 17, 2011

House panel would derail state plans for passenger trains in area

CONCORD – Despite local opposition, a House committee endorsed a bill that would stop in its tracks the effort to bring passenger rail to southern New Hampshire.

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, local lawmakers and executives with the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce all turned out to oppose the bill (HB 218) to repeal the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

Still, the House Transportation Committee voted, 11-5, to recommend passing the bill of Rep. Daniel McGuire, R-Epsom, that would abolish the authority created to oversee commuter rail lines from southern New Hampshire to Boston.

The vote came along party lines as House GOP members favored the bill to do away with the 3-year-old rail authority, and House Democratic members opposed it.

Rep. John Tholl, R-Whitefield, said this wasn’t a parochial matter for him, coming from the North County, which would see little benefit from trains running from Boston through Lowell and north to Nashua, Manchester and perhaps as far as Concord.

Rail Authority Chairman Peter Burling, a former state senator, assured the House committee that the Obama administration is awarding a $4 million planning and feasibility grant for the project.

Tholl said even if that money arrives, getting this service off the ground would require a multimillion-dollar-a-year subsidy the state can no longer afford.

“Say we have this study and design and come back with the finding the state needs to support this to the tune of $5 million or $10 million a year?” Tholl said.

“Where is that fictitious money, just lying around going to come from? When are we going to stop kidding ourselves?”

The League of Women Voters has also lent its support to the authority and opposition to this bill.

League spokeswoman Peg Fargo said the success of the Downeaster from Portland through New Hampshire to Boston shows that other commuter rail lines here can succeed.

“This is not a statement about the need for rail, it is a strong statement that New Hampshire needs the Rail Transit Authority to keep us on track to bring expanded rail service to more areas of the state,” Fargo added in a statement.

The bill likely faces its first showdown vote before the full House of Representatives next week.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or