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Friday, April 1, 2011

Rail authority’s legal power may be limited

CONCORD – Nashua’s business and political leadership made its last public stand Thursday in support of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority before a state Senate committee Thursday.

And supporters offered to weaken the authority’s legal powers if that’s what it takes to keep it alive.

‘’Take out whatever you need to do,” Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau told the Senate Transportation Committee.

Some rail critics have charged the 2007 law gave the authority too much clout including the right to approve bonds to pay for the project and to take property along the rail right-of-way for eminent domain.

Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams agreed both those sections of the law could be removed.

‘’We would be supportive of that change to the authority’s powers,’’ Williams said.

What they don’t want to have happen is for the Senate to pass this bill repealing the authority (HB 218) altogether.

The House of Representatives embraced that policy last month by a 190-118.

Gov. John Lynch signed the state law creating the authority and wants it to remain, but has not publicly vowed to veto this measure to get rid of it.

Lozeau said eliminating the authority would be harmful to the 18-month study slated to look into the feasibility and planning to bring commuter rail from Boston to Nashua and all the way to Concord.

City officials convinced the Obama administration to award the city a $4.2 million grant to undertake the study.

Lozeau said if the study concludes the project is viable, federal agencies will want supporters to move quickly on setting up the new service.

‘’Repealing the authority at this time would send the wrong message to Washington at this time which is we aren’t interested in New Hampshire,’’ Lozeau said.

‘’The message is we have already decided that rail isn’t going to happen.’’

During the 90-minute hearing Thursday, the only ones to speak for getting rid of the authority were two of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Daniel McGuire, R-Epsom, and Rep. John Hikel, R-Goffstown.

McGuire said rail transit is by far the most expensive for taxpayers to afford, citing an earlier study from the authority that concluded it would cost the state up to $7 million a year to support the service while train riders would pay $3 million in fares.

‘’When you look at the price for passenger, it is not very good,” McGuire said.

‘’The question is what are alternatives and the answer is there are much better ones to rail. In this day and age, it doesn’t make much sense.”

Williams urged the Senate to kill the bill because the grant will answer whether the project is feasible or not. In the meantime, no state money is being spent, he stressed.

‘’That’s the wrong debate to have today,” Williams said. ‘’That’s the debate to have in 18 months when we have better data.”

Also, Williams pointed out the Legislature in 2009 passed a law that specifically blocks any train service project from going forward without a vote of the Legislature.

‘’It is very explicit in our statute that the New Hampshire Rail Authority can’t saddle the state with any increased cost other than if it’s supported by you,” Williams said.

Brian McCarthy, president of the Nashua Board of Aldermen, said all modes of transportation get some subsidy by the taxpayers whether its gasoline taxes that fuel cars or federal grants that pay for new commuter buses. He urged senators to let the authority continue its mission.

‘’The authority is a simple concept. Volunteers who are put to work with money from the federal government that thinks rail is the thing to do,” McCarthy said.

But Manchester Republican Sen. David Boutin, vice chairman of the Senate panel, said the authority’s state law is slanted as an advocacy group for the service not simply to study it.

‘’Inherent in the statute is a bias to create commuter rail,” Boutin charged.

Officials with the state Departments of Transportation and Environmental Services also urged the bill be killed.

Getting rid of the authority could compromise other rail efforts that include getting the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to run trains over the border into Plaistow along with the existing Downeaster that runs from Portland through New Hampshire towns to Boston.

‘’This bill is not good government,” said Deputy Transportation Commissioner Michael Pillsbury.

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