Mar. 21—CONCORD — The state Legislature could determine the life expectancy of a proposed commercial rail project from Boston into southern New Hampshire with pending legislation that would ban spending state money on the project.
A development phase study is underway and expected at the end of this year that will update the cost, planning and capital money needed for the Capitol Corridor Project to extend commuter rail into the state with two stops in Nashua and one in Manchester.
Those on both sides of the rail issue agree that taking state dollars off the table now could doom this project before it ever gets off the ground.
“This will eliminate the prospects of investing in rail,” said E.J. Powers, speaking for N.H. Businesses for Rail Expansion against this bill (HB 1432) at a public hearing. “This would squander this potential economic opportunity.”
Rep. Mark McConkey, R-Freedom, supports the bill and agreed this legislation would be decisive.
“No passenger rail service in the world operates without extensive public subsidies,” McConkey said.
Along partisan lines, the New Hampshire House late Thursday approved this bill, 181-144.
“This is a statement that the state of New Hampshire will not be used as the piggybank for passenger rail service,” said Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford, and chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee.
“What this bill does is clearly tell those making recommendations that the state of New Hampshire will not be providing these funds.”
GOP for ban, Dems against it
House Republicans voted, 179-2, in favor of the state spending ban on rail, while Democrats opposed it, 140-8.
Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said all taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for a rail service that a small percentage of residents will use.
“If local communities feel strongly about adding rail to their communities, they should pay for it or find some model that is paid for through its riders,” Moore said.
“We applaud the House for making clear that this state is signing up for the boondoggle that has plagued other states with an endless black hole for taxpayer money.”
Rep. Marty Jack, D-Nashua, said polls showed three-fourths of residents supported commuter rail with strong support from all parts of the state and all demographic groups.
“This would send a terrible message about how willing the Legislature is to listen to its citizens and businesses,” Jack said.
Rep. Erica Layon, R-Derry, said she used commuter rail when living in San Francisco and used commuter bus service to go to and from Boston.
But Layon warned opening this project to using state dollars could cause many to reconsider moving here from other high-tax states.
“If we end up funding this, we are going to lose the advantage for the people who find their home here and work in Massachusetts,” Layon said.
Rep. Mike O’Brien, D-Nashua, said taxpayers already subsidize other forms of transportation including airport and bus travel.
The fiscally-conservative, Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy has concluded that adjusting a 2014 Department of Transportation study for inflation, the annual cost to operate could be up to $12.8 million and construction costs could be near $300 million.
Sununu has been both hot and cold on rail
Gov. Chris Sununu has a checkered past on this topic.
While on the Executive Council, he opposed using state dollars to even study commuter rail.
Then after becoming governor, Sununu embraced the concept to sweeten New Hampshire’s failed bid to become a hub for an Amazon headquarters.
Earlier this month, Sununu said he didn’t “oppose the train by any means.”
“Tell me how we’re going to pay for it, because it’s really, really expensive,” Sununu told seven chambers of commerce during a forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
Sununu also has criticized the concept of having the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority run the rail service.
Last month, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg returned to the state to promote a $25 million grant to improve Manchester’s downtown and prepare it to become a commuter rail hub.
Buttigieg said the federal infrastructure bill makes New Hampshire eligible to receive up to $125 million in mass transit aid.
Manchester city officials identified the so-called Pan Am South location along the existing rail line as a layover yard site which would be the place to store the trains overnight.
Despite the House setback, former House Public Works and Highways Chairman John Cloutier, D-Claremont, said even if this bill became law, lawmakers after the next election could undo it.
“No current Legislature can bind a future Legislature on this or any other matter,” Cloutier concluded.
(c)2022 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)
Visit The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.) at www.unionleader.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.