A challenging year for commuter rail
When our editorial board established commuter rail as one of our priorities for Agenda 2010 last winter, we certainly didn’t expect Greater Nashua residents to be boarding trains bound for Concord or Boston by the end of the year.
But we also didn’t expect an entire year to pass with what would seem to be so little progress, either.
The tone for that was set early in the year when New Hampshire was the only state in New England that was not selected to share in $8 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds that were distributed in the first round to 31 states.
State officials had hoped to secure a modest $1.4 million for design and engineering work for the New Hampshire Capitol Rail Corridor, which would connect Concord to Boston at speeds up to 79 mph in less than 90 minutes.
Under the plan, which was approved in 2008, initial service would consist of five round trips per day with stops at rail stations in downtown Manchester, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Nashua, Lowell, Mass., and North Station in Boston.
The Federal Railroad Administration designated the New Hampshire rail corridor as part of the larger New England High Speed Rail Corridor in October 2000. The goal of that project is to restore high-speed passenger rail service between Boston and Montreal in 41⁄2 hours.
Based on current estimates, the New Hampshire leg of the project would require $300 million in capital costs and $10 million in annual operating costs, according to the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, which was established in 2007 to oversee the project. It estimates fare revenues would cover 60 percent of the annual operating costs with the remainder coming from federal and state sources.
Fortunately, not all the news was bad. In October, New Hampshire learned it had secured $2.2 million in the second round of stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects, part of $2.4 billion awarded to 23 states. That money will be combined with $1.9 million in Federal Transit Authority funds for planning and environmental work.
The next steps will be to finalize operating agreements and secure capital and operating funds – certainly no small tasks in today’s economic environment.
And doing so without the support of Pan Am Railways, which owns the existing track between the Massachusetts line and Concord, doesn’t help, either. Pan Am pulled out of negotiations with the state over this project in August 2009 when it was denied the opportunity to bid on freight service between Milford and Bennington.
While the rail project has the support of Gov. John Lynch, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Christopher Williams and Manchester and Concord officials, not everyone is on board with dedicating state money toward the service.
Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, introduced a bill (HB 1521) last session that would have prohibited the rail authority from making any further commitment to passenger rail without the assurance of the state treasurer that no state subsidy would be necessary.
Kurk’s bill died in the House last year, but newly elected Rep. Dan McGuire, R-Epsom, is pursuing legislation this session that would repeal the state rail authority altogether.
That would be a shame, given the amount of work that has been invested into this process and the potential economic impact of passenger rail on the state and the region.
The question shouldn’t just be whether passenger rail can operate in New Hampshire without some type of subsidy – chances are, it can’t – but what the investment of that subsidy would mean in terms of economic development, jobs, tourism and other quality of life issues.
The rail authority estimates implementation of passenger rail would generate about $2 billion in new business and more than 19,000 jobs in its first 20 years of operation – and that doesn’t include another $258 million a year in additional sales during the construction phase of the project.
Perhaps more importantly, given the investment in both passenger and freight service in the states around us, New Hampshire could lose some of its appeal when trying to retain and attract new jobs into the state.