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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NH back on track with rail funding

Telegraph Editorial

The day when Greater Nashua residents will be able to board a passenger train bound for Boston may still be years away, but a recent announcement by the Federal Railroad Administration has put the project back on track.

On Oct. 28, the agency announced that 54 high-speed rail projects spread among 23 states will share in $2.4 billion in federal money as part of the Obama administration’s plan to develop a nationwide system of high-speed passenger rail service.

And included in that pot was a $2.2 million grant for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to be used for planning and environmental studies related to the New Hampshire Capitol Rail Corridor, which would connect Concord to Boston at speeds up to 79 mph in less than 90 minutes.

This was certainly good news after New Hampshire was the only state in New England shut out in January, when the administration announced its first round of $8 billion in federal high-speed rail grants to 31 states under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That prompted complaints from New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority Chairman Peter Burling and a trip to Washington by state Transportation Commissioner George Campbell and Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau to meet with U.S. Transportation Secretary George LaHood.

At that time, state officials were encouraged to reapply for the next round of funding, which was announced late last month in the closing days of the midterm election campaign.

As reported in Monday’s Telegraph, the $2.2 million will be used to study the potential economic and environmental impact of the rail corridor, according to Mike Izbicki, interim director of the rail authority that was created in July 2007 to develop a plan to provide commuter rail services in New Hampshire.

The Concord-to-Boston segment is part of the 489-mile Northern New England High Speed Rail Corridor that’s intended to connect Boston and Montreal in 41⁄2 hours at speeds reaching as high as 110 mph.

Under the plan, Nashua would be home to one of up to six train stations in the state. Nashua already is in possession of $5 million in federal funds that can be used to build a rail station in the community.

While there are numerous obstacles that must be overcome, no doubt one of the biggest is cost.

The state rail authority has pegged the estimated capital costs at $300 million and the annual operating costs – based on five round trips per day – at $10 million. Sixty percent of that cost would be covered by fares and, presumably, the remaining 40 percent would have to be subsidized with federal and/or state money.

Still, that hasn’t prevented other states from operating popular passenger rail services, which provide jobs, contribute to economic development, generate tax revenue, boost tourism and reduce highway congestion, among other benefits.

In Maine, for example, the $6 million gap between revenue and expenses for the Amtrak Downeaster service between Portland and Boston in fiscal year 2009 was covered by roughly $5 million in federal funds under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program and about $1 million in state money.

We have been longtime proponents of commuter rail service in New Hampshire – and regular service between Nashua and Lowell, Mass., in particular – which is why our editorial board designated it as one of our Agenda 2010 items back in January.

While it’s unfortunate the state wasted nearly a year waiting for the second round of funding, we are hopeful it will go a long way toward making commuter rail a reality in southern New Hampshire.