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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Nashua residents flock to show support for passenger rail

NASHUA – If the large majority of the 100 or so people who packed the City Hall auditorium Monday night to discuss rail service had their way, passenger rail, and expanded freight rail, would be operating in New Hampshire by the weekend.

The public meeting, the middle of three hosted by the state Department of Transportation to lay out its proposal for the future of rail in the state, comes ahead of Wednesday’s scheduled meeting of the five-member Executive Council, the outcome of which will determine whether New Hampshire can move ahead with what many call a project crucial to the state’s economy and tourist industry.

Almost all of the more than two dozen people who commented stand behind the plan to expand passenger rail in the state, allowing travel from Boston to Concord, a position shared by Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, the Board of Aldermen and Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Williams.

Laid out in presentations by Ronald D. O’Blenis, senior rail project manager of Boston consultants HDR Engineering, and DOT Rail and Transit administrator Kit Morgan, the plan also recommends shorting up and expanding freight rail to the state, which O’Blenis and Morgan said is a very beneficial first step to adding passenger rail.

Among the recommendations, Morgan said, is reducing freight rail weight restrictions, improving branch lines and existing street crossings and adding more distribution centers, projects that also will lay groundwork for future passenger rail. Rail networks shared by freight and passenger service is cost-effective and beneficial to both, he said.

Ward 3 alderman Diane Sheehan cited politics as one of the obstacles standing between the state and passenger rail. “The thing to remember is it’s elections that force us to keep starting over on this,” she told the group. “We can’t attract big industry to this area without being able to put their products on a train or a boat.”

New Hampshire’s number one industry – hospitality and tourism – stands to benefit greatly from proposed expanded passenger rail, Sheehan added, suggesting a tie-in with existing tourist railways like the Winnipesaukee and Hobo trains, and others in the Lakes Region and White Mountains.

Hudson resident Dave Long called upon O’Blenis, Morgan and other state and local officials present to step up their public relations campaign. “Unless you’re able to sell this to taxpayers, it won’t happen,” Long said. “Every time you read about this in the (New Hampshire) Union Leader it’s all about the cost of taxpayer subsidies. You can’t let opponents control the dialogue.”

A man who described himself as a “railroad buff” said owners of the local rail company Guilford Transportation “have no intention of (supporting) passenger rail service,” partly because of the costs associated with repairing and upgrading tracks presently used only for freight traffic. “At this rate, I’ll be dead before there’s any passenger rail in Nashua,” he said to chuckles.

Peter Burling, chairman of the N.H. Rail Transit Authority – the volunteer board state legislators proposed eliminating but agreed instead to cut back – urged attendees to appeal to Executive Councilors and other state officials, especially those who oppose the rail plan.

“If you want passenger rail to come to Nashua, put up your hand,” Burling said, turning to the group. A sea of hands went up. “Why would anyone in their right mind want to shut off a subsidy for rail when we’re very likely looking at $4.50 a gallon gas this summer?” an animated Burling said.

Several speakers said they can’t understand why so many officials oppose bringing passenger rail to the state, or why the legislature would attempt to disband the Rail and Transit Authority, given that the entire $4.2 million spent to date on studies and engineering has come from a combination of private business and two federal grants – none of it from taxpayer dollars.

Burling laid some of it at the feet of special interests, saying the four-year battle to bring rail to New Hampshire has in large part been fought against “economic and political interests that do not applaud the effort we’re about.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.