- NH Executive Councilor David Wheeler
Wheeler: I’ll talk about commuter rail but still oppose it
CONCORD – Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, said he’s happy to meet with Nashua officials but has no plans to change his mind about opposing a popular commuter rail project.
Nashua officials haven’t been shy in expressing their disappointment with the Executive Council’s 3-2 vote to reject a $3.7 million federal and state grant to explore the feasibility and financing of linking a commuter rail line from Boston through Nashua and on to Concord.
Wheeler said state officials are weighing options such as a $1.9 million study to run the line only to Nashua or simply to update an environmental assessment done in 2004 on bringing trains over the Massachusetts line into Nashua.
“It’s still a lot of money and would require not doing $400,000 of federal highway projects to come up with the state match,” Wheeler said. “The cost would be even cheaper to just update the environmental study done for the line only to Nashua.”
Nashua Board President Brian McCarthy had invited Wheeler to attend the board’s meeting last Tuesday and explain his vote in opposition to the rail project.
In a telephone interview Monday, Wheeler said McCarthy’s email invitation had wanted him to talk about “economic development plans for the city in general.”
“I only had two days notice, when I received the email, and that didn’t give me the time to get all the information I wanted to get together,” Wheeler said, in between meetings with state Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement and other government officials. “I’m happy to connect with them and see if there’s a mutual time when we can discuss this.”
Despite the strong support of Gov. John Lynch, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, Wheeler opposed the project, saying it was too expensive and much less an infrastructure priority than widening Interstate 93 from Salem through Manchester.
“There was $400,000 in state funds I believe was going to have to be found for that study, and the state doesn’t have it,” Wheeler said. “There isn’t just $300 million lying around to do this, and past studies have shown, even with some pretty high fares, the taxpayer would have to be on the hook for this to the tune of multiple millions a year.”
Wheeler maintains some local businessmen have told him privately they oppose the project but publicly don’t want to take on local chamber leadership.
Also on Monday, the woman Wheeler beat to win back the seat, Nashua Democrat Debora Pignatelli, confirmed she would oppose Wheeler and try to win a seventh term in 2012. In her announcement, Pignatelli pointed to Wheeler’s rail vote, along with his opposition to financing for Planned Parenthood and domestic violence prevention programs.
Pignatelli said rail is not a partisan issue and has been supported by Democrats and Republicans. “It is an important economic development measure that could expand transportation alternatives in an age of increasing gas prices,” she said.
Wheeler said it’s a matter of priorities and noted that the commuter bus service to Boston is very popular and on a path to paying for itself with no government subsidy.
Councilors Dan St. Hilaire, R-Concord, and Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, joined Wheeler in opposing the study; Ray Burton, R-Bath, and Ray Wieczorek, R-Manchester, supported it.
Lozeau has said she’s exploring other options including having the city rather than the state accept the federal grant.
Democratic National Committeeman Peter Burling, a founding member of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, said he has spoken with Gov. John Lynch about having the Obama administration run the grant itself since the project all the way to Concord is a two-state regional initiative.
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