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Thursday, January 5, 2012

NH House fails to override Gov. Lynch’s rail authority bill veto

CONCORD – The New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority got a stay of execution Wednesday from the House of Representatives, which failed to override a veto from Gov. John Lynch by only eight votes.

The bill’s failure to become law means the rail group can move full speed ahead with securing a multimillion dollar planning grant to fully explore the costs and benefits of extending rail service from Lowell, Mass., through Nashua and on to Concord.

The bill would have scaled back on the authority’s powers and strengthened the Legislature’s total control over spending any money.

“The original decision to simply create passenger rail is ill-considered,” said Rep. Dan McGuire, R-Epsom, who authored the bill, HB 218.

“There is no rail project where 50 percent of the costs is paid for by passengers,” McGuire added. “Other rail projects rely on money from people who don’t use the system. Seventy cents of every $1 is paid by others.”

The 231-128 vote in support of overriding Lynch’s veto fell just short of the required two-thirds majority needed to approve the law despite the governor’s act.

Rep. Brian Rhodes, D-Nashua, said the bill would circumvent years of study that haven’t cost state taxpayers anything.

“Regardless of whether you think rail is a good or bad idea, there is a need to study and this bill will not give the business community fair chance,” Rhodes said.

Rail Authority Chairman Peter Burling said the veto failure marked a victory for business partners who donated $121,000 to support further study of the plan.

“This allows us to do our job, get the planning grant and get that analysis completed. I couldn’t be happier with what the House has done,” Burling said.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, has been a longtime foe of taxpayer-subsidized commuter rail and delayed this May 2011 veto test vote until the first day of the 2012 session to try to rally enough override support.

Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, joined with similar groups throughout the southern tier to support the project. He said McGuire and others wrongly claimed the bill was a compromise from the original proposal to repeal the rail authority law altogether.

”Despite our best efforts to negotiate with the House leadership, the final version of HB 218 was never accepted by us as a reasonable compromise,” Williams said.

“The definition of compromise suggests that both sides are reasonably accepting of a final outcome, and we made it very clear throughout the legislative process that the current version of HB 218 was not acceptable to us,” Williams said.

Rep. Lisa Scontsas, R-Nashua, was one of about two dozen House GOP members who bucked their leadership and backed Lynch’s veto.

“Do you plan on putting another 1,000 buses on the road?” Scontsas asked. “What makes us think trains are a higher priority than any other transportation we have?”

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