Commuter rail back on track in NH

The past few years have not been kind to those folks who believe – as we do – that commuter rail should be an integral part of the state’s transportation network: just like cars, buses and airplanes.

Thanks to the closed-mindedness of the GOP-controlled Legislature and its colleagues on the Executive Council, efforts to even study the economic viability of introducing commuter rail into New Hampshire were blocked and resisted at every turn.

Two years ago, lawmakers first attempted to repeal and later restrict the powers of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, the all-volunteer body established by the Legislature in 2007 to oversee passenger rail service.

And they would have succeeded were it not for a veto by Gov. John Lynch – a veto that was sustained by a razor-thin margin of eight votes in the House of Representatives, thanks in part to support from two-dozen lawmakers in Greater Nashua.

Then, earlier this year, the Executive Council voted, 3-2, to reject the use of $3.2 million in federal transportation money for a feasibility study of the proposed New Hampshire Capitol Corridor, which would link Concord to Boston at speeds up to 79 mph in less than 90 minutes.

The council’s shortsighted decision was made all the worse when this region’s representative to the council – Republican David Wheeler, of Milford – cast the deciding vote against the contract despite pleas from Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, the Board of Aldermen and the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce to support it.

Well, at the risk of getting too optimistic, commuter rail could be back on track in 2013, courtesy of the thumping New Hampshire voters delivered to Republicans last month at all levels of government. Consider:

• Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, a rail supporter, will replace retiring Gov. John Lynch, also a proponent of passenger rail, in the corner office.

• The House’s 3-1 Republican majority, which came close to stripping the rail authority of its powers, has flipped to Democratic control, 219-179; in the Senate, the GOP majority has narrowed from 19-5 to 13-11.

• And on the Executive Council, Nashua Democrat Debora Pignatelli’s ouster of Wheeler – coupled with victories by fellow Democrats Chris Pappas, of Manchester, and Colin Van Ostern, of Concord – could put the rail study back in play in the new year.

That’s because the latest word from Washington, despite fears to the contrary, is that the $3.2 million in federal transportation money will remain available next year, notwithstanding the council’s earlier vote to reject it.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that rail proponents still need to come up with roughly $400,000 in matching funds to pay for the $3.6 million study. That became a sticking point when the council balked at using $400,000 in state-backed bonds from a previous two-year public works budget for the match.

But while $400,000 might sound like a lot of money if you’re looking to purchase a new home, it is a drop in the proverbial ocean in the context of the state’s $10.5 billion budget for 2012-13 – less than 0.004 percent, to be exact.

That would seem to be a sound investment to determine once and for all whether the economic, environmental and quality of life benefits of commuter rail outweigh its considerable costs.