Rails on track: Senate approves bill clearing completion of rail study

NASHUA – Another hurdle in bringing passenger rail service to Greater Nashua was cleared when the New Hampshire Senate voted to approve Senate Bill 241, which would allow state officials to complete the Capitol Corridor Rail Expansion’s Project Development Analysis.

This legislation, if ultimately signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu, would direct a small amount of the state’s accrued toll credit funds, which are generally used for highway projects. These funds are earned because of the state’s robust turnpike system, which is part of the national highway system.

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, along with Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tracy Hall, spoke in favor of Senate Bill 241 before a Senate committee two weeks ago.

“Senate Bill 241 passing the Senate is very good news,” Donchess said. “The next thing is to get it through the House and signed by the governor

(Sununu), and then go through with finishing up the final planning phase.”

According to the Capitol Corridor study, released in 2015, the passenger rail project could mean the following for the Granite State:

* 5,600 permanent jobs,

* 3,400 construction jobs to build the real estate development triggered by rail,

* 1,700 new jobs every year beginning in 2030,

* 3,600 residential units to support new workers,

* 1.9 million square feet of commercial real estate as a by-product of rail expansion,

* $750 million in real estate investment from 2021-2030, and

* $220 million in reinvested worker earnings added to the economy beyond 2020.

“This is a significant milestone in the effort to expand passenger rail from Boston to southern New Hampshire,” New Hampshire Business for Rail Expansion spokesman E.J. Powers said. “Bipartisan businesses from across the state and 74 percent of residents have expressed their support for rail expansion and the role it can play to grow, diversify and strengthen New Hampshire’s economy.”

Some Republicans remain unimpressed, however, leading to questions about Sununu potentially breaking with his own party on the matter.

“The New Hampshire Legislature has debated extending commuter rail to Nashua and Manchester for years and it has always been concluded that it costs too much taxpayer money with very little gain,” state Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said. “Any taxpayer money that could be used for a train would be better spent on improving existing road and bridge infrastructure across the state.”

Birdsell also said there is no proven correlation between rail expansion and economic growth as shown in the Capitol Corridor study. She also said the economic impact of the Downeaster passenger train, which runs from Brunswick, Maine to Boston, has been disappointing.

However, proponents say the money for and demand for passenger are there. They said because of toll credits, Granite State taxpayers won’t be affected as this phase is finished.

Donchess said according to DOT officials, the state has accrued approximately 280 million toll credits. He said it would be nearly impossible for the state to ever run out because the state only taps into them periodically.