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Friday, April 13, 2012

Wheeler rail vote still defies reason

Telegraph Editorial

N o one expected any minds to change when Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, sat down with the Board of Aldermen earlier this week to explain why he voted against a rail study it had strongly endorsed.

Not Wheeler. Not the aldermen. And certainly not us.

But that doesn’t mean the one-hour conversation between the executive councilor and the aldermen prior to their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night was a waste of time.

If nothing else, it solidified our view that Wheeler:

Can’t see the distinction between funding a rail feasibility study and funding rail services.

Is extremely close-minded to the potential economic benefits of expanded freight and passenger rail service in New Hampshire, such as a stop at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

Needs to work on his constituent services skills, given the number of times Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and aldermanic President Brian McCarthy had to call and email him prior to getting a response.

And is much too comfortable putting his own personal views ahead of some key constituents – in this case, the mayor, aldermen and Chamber of Commerce in the largest city within his district.

Last month, the Executive Council voted, 3-2, with Wheeler casting a decisive vote, to block the Bureau of Rail and Transit from hiring a Salem consulting firm for $3.65 million to study the viability of establishing rail service between Concord and Boston via Nashua.

Of that amount, the state would have had to contribute only $400,000 – the remainder would have been covered by two federal grants secured by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

That $400,000 – though included in the state’s general budget – coupled with decade-old studies that projected capital costs of roughly $300 million for rail was enough to convince Wheeler not to go forward with the study.

Still, as we’ve stated before, stopping now makes absolutely no sense given the sequence of events that led to this point. Think about it:

Gov. John Lynch signs legislation creating the rail authority in 2007 and charging it with overseeing the development of commuter rail in the state.

The all-volunteer rail authority raises $120,000 from private businesses to apply for federal grants to pay for the necessary studies in keeping with its mission.

The group secures two separate grants worth a combined $4.1 million and then gets approval from Washington to combine them to fund one major feasibility study.

Then, last month, more than three years after the rail authority met for the first time, three members of the Executive Council bring the entire process to a screeching halt by essentially saying: “Nevermind.”

Does that make sense to anyone?

What may make even less sense is Wheeler’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for pursuing this study even if the state didn’t have to come up with the $400,000 in matching funds.

Asked repeatedly Tuesday night if he would be willing to push for reconsideration if the city were able to come up with the $400,000 on its own, the best he could offer was “I would be open to that” or he would “entertain that thought.”

Sadly, that told us everything we needed to know about Wheeler’s willingness to pursue anything related to commuter rail service in New Hampshire.