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State secures $2.24 million rail grant



Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010
New Hampshire will receive a $2.24 million federal grant to study a passenger rail line between Concord and Boston.

The grant will allow the state to go ahead with planning work for the Capitol Corridor project, including an environmental study, an economic impact study and an analysis of alternative types of transportation.

U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, who helped secure the grant, called it a 'critical step' in the project.

'It will allow for the completion of all the preliminary work necessary as a basis for going forward and building a passenger rail system to serve our Capitol Corridor,' he said.

Hodes, a Democrat, announced the news a week before he faces Republican Kelly Ayotte in the U.S. Senate election. His campaign cited the grant as evidence of the benefits of the federal stimulus package, which Hodes supports and Ayotte opposes.

The money comes from the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail funding program; it was funded by a transportation appropriations bill passed in 2009 and is not part of the federal Recovery Act spending. But Hodes spokesman Matt House said the program was authorized by the Recovery Act.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called Hodes yesterday to inform him that New Hampshire would receive the grant.

New Hampshire previously got a $1.9 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority for planning purposes. That money will be combined with the latest grant and used to hire a consultant to conduct the studies.

'This is fabulous news,' said Peter Burling, chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. 'This is a very important first step that will allow us to put the initial work out for bid and get going.'

There have been other studies. In March, a consultant working for the Rail Transit Authority and the state Department of Transportation released a 42-page overview of the Capitol Corridor project. The overview envisioned a passenger rail line running from Boston to Concord with stops in Lowell, Mass., Nashua and Manchester. There would be five round trips a day, with that number gradually increasing. It predicted that the rail line would cost about $300 million to build and would generate a ridership of about 500,000 trips a year. The report predicted that if the rail line were built in 2014, service would increase to 10 round trips a day by 2019 and would then generate 1 million trips per year.

Mike Pillsbury, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said the new grant would pay for a detailed 'service development plan,' which is required to obtain federal grants for construction. It would answer questions about expected ridership, the capacity of the track, how many trains would be needed, expected travel time, where stations would be located and so on.

It will take about 18 months to complete the work. After that, the state can apply for grants to do engineering and construction work, such as refurbishing rails and adding track.

Opponents of the rail plan have questioned how much it would cost state taxpayers. Pillsbury said one question the study will look at is the cost of the project and where the money would come from.

Burling said the project would only go forward with the support of the state and federal government.

'The Legislature would need to decide what kind of contribution the state would want to make,' Burling said.

He noted that there are some federal grants that pay for rail expenses not covered by fares. The state will not spend general fund taxpayer money on the planning study.

The grant is likely to renew debate both from a policy perspective and a political one. Some critics have argued that it could cripple the state bus system. Dick Lemieux, a retired transportation planner and highway engineer, said he does not believe there is a place for rail in New Hampshire. He said that ridership levels would be too low to justify the cost and that the operating expenses would require significant taxpayer money.

'I don't see it as having a high benefit-to-cost ratio,' Lemieux said.

On the other hand, groups including the Conservation Law Foundation have been strong advocates for the project.

Politically, Hodes played a role in securing the grant. He supported the project and organized a meeting at his Washington office with federal and state transportation officials, including LaHood and state Transportation Commissioner George Campbell, to talk about the plan. Hodes said he believes businesses and tourism will both benefit.

'This country was built on rail, and we have a need for alterative transportation now for economic development and for environmental and energy concerns,' Hodes said.

At a recent debate, Ayotte would not commit to supporting the project. She said two questions had to be answered first: Would the rail line be viable, and can it sustain itself?

'We do not want it to become a proposition propped up by taxpayers' dollars for decades to come,' Ayotte said.

Yesterday, her spokesman, Jeff Grappone, challenged Hodes's statement that the stimulus bill was the catalyst needed to produce the grant.

'We didn't need a bloated, wasteful stimulus package to examine the feasibility of commuter rail,' Grappone said.

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)