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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Let’s put the brakes on rail authority bill

We may be only one month into the legislative session in Concord, but it’s already starting to look like 2011 may well be remembered as the “Year of the Repeal.”

Repeal the ban on guns in the Statehouse. Repeal the same-sex marriage law. Repeal the state’s authority to implement the federal health care reform law. Repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. And that’s just the start of it.

Overall, 30 bills have been filed this session that call for the repeal of a law, moratorium, provision, tax or other such thing. By way of comparison, only 35 repeal bills were filed during the previous two years combined, according to the General Court’s website (www.gencourt.state.nh.us).

We’ve already taken a position in opposition to one such bill – repealing the same-sex marriage law – and today we are going to take a strong stand against another: an ill-advised bid to repeal the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

Last week, the House Transportation Committee took several hours of testimony on HB 218, a bill being championed by Rep. Donald McGuire, R-Epsom, that would drive a spike through several years of planning to establish passenger rail service between Concord and Boston – with a stop in Nashua.

The New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority was created by the Legislature in 2007 with broad support – a voice vote in the Senate; a 189-120 roll-call vote in the House – to oversee the development of commuter rail in New Hampshire. Former state Sen. David Gottesman, D-Nashua, was the prime sponsor of the legislation, which drew bipartisan backing from Greater Nashua lawmakers.

Since that time, the rail authority has secured $4.1 million in federal money for planning and environmental work.

During last Tuesday’s hearing, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and Board of Aldermen President Brian McCarthy helped lead opposition against the bill, rightfully arguing that now was not the time to repeal the state’s rail authority. The Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce also voiced its opposition to the bill.

“I think it is shortsighted of us not to complete our look and look at all the options regarding rail,” Lozeau said.

“This is the worst possible time to send a message that we’re not interested in rail.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Peter Burling, chairman of the authority and a former Democratic state senator from Cornish.

Burling said the federal money would go a long way toward determining the feasibility of passenger rail service in New Hampshire, emphasizing that not a “single state dollar” has been used in this process to date.

For his part, McGuire has called plans for passenger rail in New Hampshire a “boondoggle” and a “waste of money,” saying it’s unsuitable for a rural state.

Even if the sponsor of the bill is correct in his overall assessment – and we don’t believe he is – what is the point of abolishing the authority at this critical juncture? In other words, what’s the emergency?

Repeal would not save the state a dime this year, so what’s the harm in letting the 28-member volunteer group proceed with its plans to gather hard data on what it would mean to introduce passenger rail service?

To be clear, The Telegraph editorial board didn’t choose commuter rail as one of our Focus 2011 priorities because we view it as a quaint vestige of yesteryear.

We did so because we believe passenger rail here in southern New Hampshire would create jobs, spur economic growth and provide commuters and others with another viable transportation alternative to get from here to there – car, bus, rail or plane.

We urge our lawmakers – particularly those here in Greater Nashua – to reject this foolish bid to repeal the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. It was good idea when the Legislature established it four years ago, and it is still a good idea today.