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Friday, March 9, 2012

Wheeler let his constituents down

Telegraph Editorial

We’ve heard a lot of cockamamie excuses from our elected leaders over the years, but they don’t get much lamer than those offered Wednesday by District 5 Executive Councilor David Wheeler of Milford.

Asked to approve a federally funded, $3.65 million study to help determine the viability of expanded passenger rail service from Concord to Boston, Wheeler joined Councilors Daniel St. Hilaire of Concord and Christopher Sununu of Newfields to block the study, thereby putting $4.1 million in federal grant money in serious jeopardy.

Even though the study had the strong backing of business, civic and municipal, leaders in the district he was elected to represent – or at least so we thought.

Four years in the making, the study had the support of Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau – who made a valiant, last-minute bid before the council Wednesday prior to the vote – and the Board of Aldermen. It had the support of the Greater Nashua and Manchester chambers of commerce. And it had the support of nearly seven of 10 state residents, based on a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll, including a majority of self-identified Republicans.

Still, that wasn’t enough to persuade Wheeler to join with Councilors Raymond Burton of Bath and Raymond Wieczorek of Manchester to fund the study.

Generally, Wheeler and Sununu agreed with St. Hilaire’s contention that the state should be focusing on finding the $300 million it needs to pay for the widening of Interstate 93.

We would like to see I-93 widened, too, but why does this have to be an either or? Why couldn’t the state pursue funding for I-93 and authorize a feasibility study of expanded rail service using the $4.1 million in federal funds the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority had secured for this very purpose? Why not both?

As for Wheeler, we found his arguments unconvincing, to say the least.

“I have talked to business people in Nashua, and I think this $4 million is way too much money,” he said. “We are spending money we don’t have for a project we can’t afford.”

Too much money? Again, the funds came from the federal government – not from state taxpayers – and, if not used here, are just going to be diverted to a state that better understands the economic and environmental benefits of rail.

Then there was this: “I talked to some Nashua chamber members who privately told me they weren’t for rail,” he said. “The supporters have done an excellent job of PR, but I’ve felt for some time support for this is rather shallow.”

So just because “some” chamber members weren’t behind the study, that outweighs the overwhelming support of the mayor, aldermen and the two predominant chambers of commerce in southern New Hampshire?

Hard as we try, we just don’t get it, which leads us to suspect the vote had less to do with the merits of the study and more to do with politics.

As some have suggested, maybe it was opposition from the highway construction industry. Or the commuter bus business.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply a matter of Republicans voting against the rail study because Democratic President Barack Obama is such a strong advocate of expanding high-speed rail service throughout the country.

If that’s the case, we wish Wheeler would have just said so. At least that’s something we can understand.