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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Brakes pulled on commuter rail in NH

CONCORD – The Obama administration turned down New Hampshire’s request for a planning grant that’s critical to the return of commuter rail service from Concord through Nashua to Boston.

New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority Chairman Peter Burling said he was unhappy that New Hampshire’s request for the $1.4 million wasn’t approved.

“I am extremely disappointed and angry that a decision was made to give us nothing,” he said. “I know it may be bravado, but the members of the NHRTA do not give up and I do not give up.”

Burling’s remark was a reference to Obama’s State of the Union speech Wednesday. The president said when it comes to trying to achieve systemic change in Washington, “I don’t quit.”

Transportation Commissioner George Campbell will meet with Federal Rail Administration officials to learn why New Hampshire was the only state in the region not to get any rail money, his spokesman said Friday.

“We think there just may be other sources for these kind of planning dollars, but that’s really up in the air right now,” said Transportation information officer Bill Boynton said.

If awarded, the state had to match the federal planning grant to pay for the $2.8 million design and engineering of the Concord-to-Boston rail upgrade.

It also included analysis of the improvements on the freight rail market and traffic at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

As its match, the state could have claimed federal dollars it has already set aside to build commuter train stations in Nashua and Manchester one day, as well as $121,000 in private donations the authority raised to support its work, Burling said.

“We are not done. I am looking for answers, and I am going to take this as a decision subject to review and revision,” said Burling, a member of the Democratic National Committee who has spoken to Vice President Joe Biden about the project twice.

Many prominent Democratic leaders in Congress who lost out were less outspoken than Burling, such as Sen. John Kerry, a 2004 presidential nominee who pledged he would try to get more money for Massachusetts in the next round.

Later Friday, Burling said he spoke with federal rail officials who encouraged the state to apply for the same planning grant in five months, and that in this round, the state would have to put up only a 20 percent match.

“I was more encouraged after that conversation,” Burling said.

Congress has approved a second round of $2.5 billion in federal stimulus grants for rail in the next federal budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Burling said losing progress for a year is painful for a project that had built public support.

With the grant, Burling said it would have set the state up later this year to apply for $300 million in equipment, including track improvements, four train stations and enough new cars to support five round trips a day.

An NRTA study released two weeks ago concluded it would cost $10 million a year to operate a Concord-to-Boston service. The train authority’s report claimed 60 percent of that money would come from commuter fares and the rest from federal, state or local taxpayers.

“The federal government isn’t used to the way we do things here in New Hampshire,” Burling said. “In most places, there are only government dollars at play for rail, but we have had a public and private partnership on this for some time.”

Last August, Campbell decided the state wouldn’t seek the $300 million in equipment because it lacked backing from the main operator, Pan Am Railways.

State officials noticed rail projects that won grants this week had significant financial support from home state governments and that their rail operators were on board, as well, Boynton said.

“We have neither, and that’s apparently not a great combination,” Boynton said.

Pan Am President David Fink withdrew from negotiations over whether his rail company would back this project after Campbell refused to let his firm bid to operate a short-line freight track from Milford to Bennington.

State Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, has had an operating agreement with the state for that line for 20 years.

State officials have explored talks to have Amtrak serve as the commuter rail operator over Pan Am’s tracks in New Hampshire, as it does with the Downeaster commuter train from Portland, Maine, to Boston. Amtrak would have to pay Pan Am for access to those rails.

All of New England received less than 2 percent of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money for rail.

Maine received $35 million to extend the Downeaster 30 miles north from Portland to Brunswick.

Maine officials said they also have a request for $52 million to upgrade Downeaster tracks through Massachusetts that would include a new spur to Plaistow.

Most of the money destined for New England – a total of $160 million – is for improvements to a line between New Haven, Conn., and Vermont.

Vermont was one of nine states to split $3 million in planning grant awards.

At the Statehouse this week, a House of Representatives committee unanimously recommended killing a bill (HB 1521) that would outlaw any commuter rail project until it guaranteed it could run without any state subsidy for 10 years.

The House will take up that bill Wednesday.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.