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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Getting steamed up over GOP rail tactics

Telegraph Editorial

Things are getting out of control. Dismantling the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority and turning down $4.1 million in federal grants to study the cost and impact of rail in New Hampshire is not just shortsighted – it’s ludicrous.

And now, House Speaker William O’Brien is trying to stifle debate and strong-arm the issue against the will of the vast majority of those who elected him.

In an unusual show of force, and with brazen disregard for the democratic process, O’Brien met privately with Republican members on the House Transportation Committee for 30 minutes Wednesday, just before they were about to vote on the bill to abolish the rail authority.

Then, he selected five GOP lawmakers to take temporary seats on the committee to beef up the opposition. The committee voted, 11-5, to recommend repeal.

House GOP leaders said O’Brien rounded up whoever happened to be in the hallway to fill vacant seats on the committee.

Boy, what a coincidence that all five turned out to be ardent supporters of the bill – including House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, of Salem, and Deputy Majority Leader Shawn Jasper, of Hudson – that would squash plans for commuter rail from Concord to Lowell, Mass., with stops in Manchester and Nashua.

Clearly, O’Brien would like this issue to go away before the facts that he can’t be bothered to consider reach the public’s ears.

The anti-rail House legislators would tell you they can’t support a rail system that would require government subsidies to operate in the black.

What they’re not telling you is that all public transportation is subsidized – including roads and buses. We charge tolls and raise money through the gas tax to help fund the roads, and while we charge fares to help support bus service, costs always run higher than revenues.

What we don’t spend on rail – a project that would lighten traffic on our roads – we will spend on road improvements to deal with future congestion.

Itching for that fourth lane on the F.E. Everett Turnpike? Without rail, it will happen. It’s not a matter of whether to subsidize transportation, it’s a question of what kind of transportation we want to subsidize.

The anti-rail folks will tell you we just can’t afford it.

They won’t tell you that we haven’t fully studied the potential cost and impact of rail in New Hampshire. The federal government has given us money to do just that, but repealing the rail authority would also mean saying “no thanks” to the opportunity to better understand rail’s pros and cons – free of charge.

They probably won’t mention that there are ways to pay for rail subsidies that don’t involve raising state taxes, such as federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grants designed to fund efforts that reduce overall tailpipe emissions.

They might argue that New Hampshire is too rural to support rail.

But Maine and Vermont have found success with rail lines in areas with far less population density.

In fact, every state in New England, except us, is aggressively pursuing rail development. They will benefit from the economic development that comes along with rail, and we won’t. They will continue to call us the “doughnut hole” when it comes to rail.

Finally, the anti-rail group will never bring up what the public really wants.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released last week revealed that 75 percent of New Hampshire voters back extending commuter rail service while only 5 percent oppose it.

Similarly, 69 percent of respondents wanted the state to accept the federal planning money while 11 percent did not. The rest were undecided.

Both Republicans (59 percent) and Democrats (86 percent) favored the project.

Ironically, O’Brien would love to have you believe the rail authority should be dismantled because it has too much power.

Based on his actions of last week, no doubt some people are harboring similar thoughts about the new speaker.