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Monday, February 28, 2011

Rail transit money at risk

More than $4 million in federal funds is ready to fuel passenger train service across New Hampshire. But with a repeal bill pending at the Statehouse, planners remain stuck in neutral.

Legislation proposing to disband the N.H. Rail Transit Authority, set for a vote in the state House of Representatives, has effectively stalled the planning group’s efforts to run passenger lines from Concord to Boston and beyond, planners say.

Federal lawmakers have awarded the state $4.2 million to further research and plan the so-called Capitol Corridor, which would include stops in Nashua, Manchester and Concord, among others.

Group members are continuing to meet, they said. But rather than preparing an economic analysis and environmental impact study and other reports to advance the project, they find themselves stuck at the Statehouse, defending the existence of the authority board, which was established three years ago by Gov. John H. Lynch.

“We’re kind of in purgatory here, waiting for the chance to go forward,” Peter Burling, chairman of the transit authority, said . “Until our ability to survive is determined, we’re not able to go on to the next step.”

A team of Republican lawmakers, led by state Rep. Dan McGuire, of Epsom, introduced the bill earlier this year, looking to slow the state’s rail plan, which is part of a larger initiative to connect rail lines all the way to Montreal. The House transportation panel recommended the repeal this month by an 11-5 vote.

The state shouldn’t pay for rail passengers or make it easier for companies to lure jobs away from the state, Republican House leaders argued.

Not everyone in their party agrees.

“I don’t know how the people in the north feel about it, but economically and for commuters, rail is the best thing that could happen to this area down here,” said state Sen. Gary Lambert, a Nashua Republican who does not support the repeal effort.

Studies conducted over recent years have shown that rail service will bring jobs to the state, as well as transporting workers elsewhere, according to planners and project advocates.

In addition to the time and environmental benefits, the rail service would create over $2.4 billion in new business over a 20-year period, as well as $1 billion in wages stemming from nearly 1,000 new jobs, according to a preliminary study by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston.

Passenger trains would reduce traffic volume along state highways, supporters contend, and they could prove vital to drawing more passengers and additional flights to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, according to the report, which also laid out recommendations for further economic study.

“Certainly, we feel that the economic benefits of this are huge,” said Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “But more importantly the debate over commuter rail needs to be set aside until the proper studies have been completed. To cut short those studies is very short-sighted.”

Should the bill pass the House, it would move on to the state Senate, where supporters hope it will get a more reasoned response.

“This would mean so much to New Hampshire commuters and to the business community. They have to see that,” echoed Peter Griffin, president of the N.H. Railroad Revitalization Association, which has lobbied for nearly 20 years to return passenger service to the state. “Worst comes to worst, there’s always another election in two years.”

Planners and advocates alike believe the fight for passenger rail will continue, with or without the transit authority.

Private businesses could continue to contribute planning money, said Mark Richardson, of New Hampshire Businesses for Transportation and Infrastructure, an advocacy group that has lobbied in favor of the train service. And even without the authority board, state officials would still have access to the federal planning funds.

“The opportunity is there,” Richardson said. “It would be very disappointing if people like (the Transportation Department) and the governor did not do something with this.”

Moving forward, state officials could continue to plan without the transit authority, but repealing the board would send the wrong message to Washington lawmakers who hold the key to further funding for the project, said Burling, the authority chairman, who estimates the project cost at about $300 million.

Much of the financing would likely come from federal stimulus dollars, though operational costs could leave the state with a $6 million to $8 million deficit, Burling has said.

“We’re not likely to get enhanced federal grants like this again,” he said. “We’d probably be looking to commuter train grants, which would be 50 percent only. But right now, we have a shot at 100 percent funding. ... Which is the better deal for the New Hampshire taxpayer?”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.