NH rail study picking up steam – again

When the Executive Council meets next month, it may have an opportunity to take the first step toward doing what its predecessor should have done last year: sanction the use of federal funds to study an expansion of commuter rail in New Hampshire.

That’s because Gov. Maggie Hassan has instructed Department of Transportation officials to bring the issue before the council now that the Legislature’s joint Capital Budget Overview Committee on Wednesday approved the use of $360,000 in turnpike toll credits as the state’s match for $1.6 million in federal funds to be used toward a feasibility study of passenger rail service between Concord and Boston. States receive toll credits from the federal government in return for maintaining interstate highways.

While there are few sure things in life, we are cautiously optimistic that the newly reconfigured council, which swung from a 5-0 Republican majority to a 3-2 Democratic one after the 2012 election, will do the right thing and consider the money for its intended use.

For one, Republican David Wheeler, of Milford, who cast the deciding vote against awarding the rail study contract last year, is no longer a member, having been ousted by Democrat Debora Pignatelli, of Nashua.

And four of the five councilors – Republican Raymond Burton, of Bath, and Democrats Colin Van Ostern, of Concord, Christopher Pappas, of Manchester, and Pignatelli – all have expressed their support for the project in the past.

As envisioned by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, the New Hampshire Capitol Corridor project would connect Concord to Boston at speeds up to 79 mph in less than 90 minutes. The study also is expected to look at rail and other transit options in the Manchester-Nashua-Lowell, Mass., section of the corridor.

Not surprisingly, the committee’s vote Wednesday was hailed by Nashua political and business leaders, who believe as we do that the introduction of passenger rail would boost the economy and the state’s already high quality of life.

“We don’t presuppose anything but believe the council looks good for us,” said Christopher Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, who was present for the committee’s vote.

Williams and Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, among others, have been instrumental in keeping this issue alive, lobbying the council last year and the legislative capital budget panel in recent days. The role of Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, who chairs the committee, shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Still, the council’s 3-2 vote last March not to award a $3.65 million contract to URS Corp. of San Francisco, an international engineering firm with offices in Salem, added a few more steps to the process.

If the council approves the use of the $1.9 million next month, the state then will reapply to the Federal Railroad Administration for the $2.24 million it had been awarded but expired at the end of last year. State officials have been assured that money remains available.

Ultimately, those two grants would be combined to fund the long-awaited rail study contract, if that proves to be the will of the council.

All of this, of course, would have been unnecessary had the previous council not been so shortsighted in rejecting the use of predominantly federal money to pay for the study.

We trust the “new and improved” version won’t make that same mistake.