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NH Executive Councilor David Wheeler
Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nashua board, residents question Executive Councilor Wheeler on rail vote

NASHUA – Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, cracked about being tarred and feathered by aldermen Tuesday, as he was grilled on his vote against a $3.2 million federal grant to study linking Boston’s commuter rail line to Nashua and Concord.

Wheeler attended the meeting in response to board President Brian McCarthy’s invitation to discuss plans for economic development in the region, but the conversation barely strayed from that vote, which was vehemently opposed by city officials.

Last month, the Executive Council voted 3-2 against the rail study, including opposition from Councilors Dan St. Hilaire, R-Concord, and Chris Sununu. Ray Burton, R-Bath, and Ray Wieczorek, R-Manchester, supported it.

Wheeler represents District 5, which includes Nashua.

Leading up to the vote, the rail study had garnered unanimous support from city aldermen, as well as Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and Gov. John Lynch.

On Tuesday, Wheeler said part of the reason he rejected the study was because it would have required $400,000 from the state’s general fund to match the grant. The state’s highway funds and turnpike toll funds were considered unconstitutional for the project, he said.

“It’s very easy to be for something if you’re not going to be asked to pay for it,” Wheeler said. “Not only is it the cost of the study, but where are we going to get the money to subsidize the operation? … We just don’t have that money.”

Wheeler said if the study had been approved, it would have been the state’s fourth look at a possible rail connection through the state, and a project that has proved to be too costly for the state to complete.

The most recent studies looking at bringing rail to Nashua in 2004 and through the state in 2003 showed the cost of bringing the two parallel rail lines through New Hampshire, which would be required of the project, totaling approximately $300 million.

“We’re going to have to borrow the money from China, and my grandchildren and your grandchildren are going to have to pay it back,” Wheeler said, “Not to mention where are we going to get the state match?”

Since the match would have had to come from the state’s general funds, rail also competes with other priorities, such as special education and health and human services, Wheeler said.

“I am, you need to know, getting calls from other people from the city who think I cast the right vote for this project,” Wheeler said.

His explanations didn’t fall on agreeable ears, however.

“It is frustrating and disappointing and the information you’re presenting, I’m skeptical the state does not have $400,000,” Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess said. “It’s like saying the city of Nashua couldn’t come up with $20,000 in a crunch.”

Some aldermen questioned whether the data the Executive Council considered in coming to its final decision to reject the study was outdated.

The increased traffic flow between the southern and northern parts of the state over the past decade also called for an updated study, aldermen said.

“I just have to really question the wisdom, especially when you throw in the price of gas, of not at least allowing the study to go forward,” Ward 8 Alderman Mary Ann Melizzi-Golja said. “If the study went forward and proved it was not totally feasible, I think a number of us would listen to that and say, ‘I guess we were really looking with rose-colored glasses when we thought this was the right thing to do.’”

When aldermen asked Wheeler if the Executive Council would reconsider their decision, he doubted there was a will in Concord to do so.

But as the Executive Council turns away from a statewide rail connection, city officials are turning their attention to bringing the commuter rail at least to Nashua.

“There is the possibility of asking the feds whether they would accept an upgraded study for the rail just going to Nashua, and I don’t know exactly how the feds would feel about just stopping that study in Nashua to keep the cost down, but that is one possibility,” Wheeler said.

Lozeau has said the city is talking with the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the governor’s office and other members of the Executive Council about ways the city could potentially use the rejected funds to bring rail to Nashua.

Wheeler cautioned the board about spending the money to complete a study on bringing rail to Nashua if the state could not ultimately support funding to build it.

Lozeau has said one of the possibilities for local rail includes a multi-modal transit center at Exit 36 South, to potentially be located over the New Hampshire border in Tyngsborough, Mass.

Nashua also is eyeing the purchase of 25 Crown St. for a park and ride and a potential station location.

Wheeler warned Lozeau about using turnpike toll funds to complete the land acquisition, if the property is ultimately used for a rail station.

“I’m just giving you the caution that if you turn a building that was purchased with highway toll credits into a train station, you will probably have to pay the money back,” Wheeler said.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).