Executive Council rejects rail money

Last modified: Thursday, March 08, 2012
The state's Executive Council yesterday rejected federal money to study a potential Boston-to-Concord rail line, effectively stopping the idea in its tracks.

The five-member, all-Republican panel voted 3-2 against a $3.6 million contract to explore the feasibility of a capital corridor passenger train, with Dan St. Hilaire of Concord opposed to the project. St. Hilaire and other councilors argued the state should instead be focused on bringing in federal dollars to complete the widening of Interstate 93.

'If you've got a competing interest and not enough money to finish both, I say let's finish what we started,' St. Hilaire said.

Republicans have generally expressed fear that the rail line could eventually become a financial burden to the state.

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, a Republican, urged the council to approve the contract. The city's aldermen and chamber of commerce are supportive of the plan, she said.

'I've not ever been at a business that didn't ask me about bringing rail in,' she said. 'We need the information to make the case. Without it, we're operating blind.'

Councilors Ray Wieczorek of Manchester and Ray Burton of Bath voted in favor of the contract, while St. Hilaire, David Wheeler of Milford and Chris Sununu of Newfields voted against it.

Former state senator Peter Burling, the past chairman of a rail transit authority that has pushed for the project, was upset by the vote. The refusal to use federal money to simply study the issue left him 'breathless with incredulity,' and the funding will likely now be used by another state, he said.

'It felt like foolishness,' he said. 'It felt like ignorance triumphing over inquiry.'

Burling said his group had raised $141,000 from private donors, including Republican businessmen, to pay a firm to put together a federal grant application.

'The action by three executive councilors, who decided based on dogma instead of information, is an overt insult to the nonpartisan donors of the original effort,' he said.

Burling said he and other rail advocates are now trying to come up with a back-up plan, hoping the federal transportation secretary might step in and award the contract anyway. St. Hilaire said he might be willing to consider a plan that would only bring the rail line up through Nashua.

Burling said the 'no' vote was pushed by lobbyists for bus companies that run from Concord to Boston and general contractors angling for work on I-93.

'God knows why St. Hilaire decided to make this decision given his district, but a deal was made,' Burling said.

St. Hilaire said he had no discussions with bus lobbyists and instead got 'a lot of phone calls' from residents, especially in the Nashua area, pushing for the study. He told the council he 'thought long and hard' about yesterday's vote.

'Being from Concord, we once had the rail up here as an experiment in the '80s, but once the federal funding dried up, it stopped,' St. Hilaire said.

St. Hilaire said the current version of the state's 10-year transportation plan includes a proposal to widen I-93 through Concord, not just through Manchester as has been widely discussed. So far, no funding source has been identified for the $365 million needed to build through Manchester, let alone through Concord.

'The constituents around here are really concerned about I-93 . . . on the weekends it's like a traffic jam,' St. Hilaire said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)