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Friday, May 6, 2011

Transit authority trimmed

CONCORD – A state Senate committee declined to embrace an end to the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority on Thursday, but endorsed legislation to clip its wings quite a bit.

Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, produced the compromise after several weeks of draftsmanship on it.

If adopted, it would scale back on the authority’s powers and strengthen the Legislature’s total control over spending to support extending commuter rail service from Lowell, Mass., through Nashua and on to Concord.

Boutin declared that the author of the House-approved bill to get rid of the rail authority (HB 218) – Rep. Donald McGuire, R-Epsom – would accept his proposal as an alternative.

“I talked on three occasions to affirm the prime sponsor’s support for this the last time being (Wednesday),” Boutin said. “I got the clear indication that they would concur with the amendment.”

Boutin claimed without these changes there stood a very real chance of the repeal bill passing the state Senate.

“I think the outcome would not have been desirable at all for a lot of us,” Boutin said. “You don’t pass bills that make everybody happy.”

The Senate Transportation Committee endorsed the changes, 4-1, with Sen. Molly Kelly, D-Keene, the lone holdout.

Kelly said the changes are too extensive and would reduce to a study committee the authority the Legislature created by state law in 2007.

“I think the scope you have is just a pure study committee and is not going to move us any more forward than we have been in the past,” Kelly said. “We really need the economy to grow in this state and I feel this is really a roadblock to doing that.”

Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams objected to ending a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Transportation and repealing the state law that the authority can seek funding for commuter rail from Lowell to Manchester.

Williams thanked Senator Boutin for meeting with him and making concessions but the Nashua business group opposed the finished product.

“This is disappointing as we had hoped the Senate would agree the authority is essential to job growth and economic development through commuter rail,” Williams said.

“This would be a giant step back in time for all the efforts we have made to date.”

The amended bill would strip the authority’s powers to issue bonds, take property by eminent domain or lease a commuter rail line to an operator such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The authority’s sole purpose would be to study the cost-benefit analysis of commuter rail and other forms of passenger rail service.

Service areas as those in the current law to get rail service would be changed to “study areas” in the amended bill.

It would prevent not only the authority but the state of New Hampshire and Department of Transportation from spending any capital or operating money for passenger rail service without a vote of approval from the Legislature.

James Rausch, R-Derry, said these are appropriate steps as the state awaits the outcome of a $4.1 million study on the feasibility of commuter rail.

“The study is to ascertain whether we do go forward. There is not the proven fact that the demographics support this kind of expansion,” Raush said.

Boutin said this would not block Nashua from deciding on its own to approve at the city’s own expense a commuter rail spur that would extend the Lowell, Mass., service just over the border.

“It does not interfere with the city of Nashua were it to get funding on its own and wanted to get a commuter line from Nashua to Lowell,” Boutin said.

“They can do it. The city of Nashua could underwrite the cost, not the state of New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire Rail Authority Chairman Peter Burling said the group’s fate appears to rest with a popular Gov. John Lynch and if needed, a veto of the entire issue.

“We now rely on the strong, steady hand of Governor Lynch,” Burling said.

“This governor holds a 68 percent approval rating; that’s a lot of power. It is my hope he chooses to use it.”

Lynch had not seen the committee rewrite and will confer with business chamber leaders before commenting on it, his spokesman said.

Burling took no comfort in the Senate change leaving the authority alive.

“This is a severe setback,” Burling said. “We have cleared all of these hurdles and now to be turned into a glorified study committee is disingenous and silly to describe that as even remotely acceptable.”

The amended bill would also permit the state DOT to complete negotiations with the MBTA to extend rail service from Haverhill, Mass., over the border into Plaistow.

Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, said the Boutin changes put the fate of commuter rail where it squarely belongs – with state lawmakers.

“To tax the people that heavily in order to subsidize rail could be a dangerous thing so we need to see the study,” Forsythe said. “If they can make the case for cost, then they can come back to us and seek our support.”

Lynch, a strong authority supporter, convinced Boutin to remove from the amended bill the repeal of a cap on liability from future rail accidents.

State and rail authority officials said the $75 million cap lawmakers approved three years ago is critical to getting a rail operator to service New Hampshire commuter rail lines.

Robert Sculley, lobbyist with the state Motor Transportation Association, favored the House repeal bill but endorsed this one Thursday.

“The General Court should have the final say on all areas of transportation and not just rail,” Sculley said. “We are pleased with this; this makes sense.”

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