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State House Memo: Thinking ahead will keep rail back on track

The Capitol Corridor rail project is back on track. The rail and transit study halted by last year’s Executive Council now has strong, bipartisan support that reflects its popularity with business leaders and residents alike. The study will very likely pass shortly and be completed by the end of next year.

But this resuscitated study alone won’t determine rail’s fate in New Hampshire. To prevent another political derailment in the future, we must think ahead. Here’s how:

1. Judge rail based on overall economic development, not ridership alone. In January an executive from the largest private employer in Concord and another from the fastest-growing startup in Manchester each pleaded the case for rail to me, using almost the same words, hours apart: Help us grow, bring workers to the area and reduce barriers between us and Boston so New Hampshire’s advantages shine even brighter, they said.

They want rail because of its overall economic impact, and they recognize that rail boosts their own (and the state’s) economic growth. This is the prize – and it is far larger than the economic bump from rail line construction jobs or the loss from covering operating costs.

2. Secure a long-term bipartisan vision, not stop-and-go development. When one party alone controlled the fate of rail in Concord last year, the project stalled (and by the way, that opposition cost some lawmakers their seats). Now, rail is back on track because Democrats and Republicans are working together. If the past decade is a guide, the Republican and Democratic parties will each have their day in the sun before this project is done – so we must embrace this as a practical issue, not a partisan one. We’re in this together.

3. Benefit the whole state, not just one community. The strongest case for rail is one that benefits as many New Hampshire residents as possible. Bridging Boston with Nashua’s businesses, Merrimack’s outlets, Manchester’s airport and Concord’s connections to the Lakes Region and North Country would fill the hole left by today’s existing rail lines along our state’s eastern and western borders. Ideologically-driven opponents want to stake one region of the state against another – but what’s best for New Hampshire is a transit plan that benefits all of us.

4. Consider our transportation infrastructure as a whole, not just a stand-alone project. Rail must succeed as part of a well-planned transportation web that connects Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, an expanded Interstate 93 and a rapidly-growing bus network across the state. Less traffic, more mobility and more commerce with our neighbors to the south creates a strong foundation for economic growth. Both our bus lines and the Downeaster rail line on the Seacoast are setting records and stand to gain from the amplification rail provides.

There’s no question that the promise of rail for New Hampshire is huge: attracting new workers for growing New Hampshire businesses; delivering tourists, shoppers and business visitors to our state; reducing traffic on I-93; easing commutes; and amplifying the growth of new bus routes and the Manchester airport.

There are also significant costs to building and operating rail, and the coming study should shed some light on the costs of transit options in the Capitol Corridor. Once that study is complete, we must take an objective and comprehensive look at how those costs stack up against the tremendous economic benefits of rail.

This year won’t produce a final decision on rail, but it will lay the foundation for whether that decision is made the right way. If we focus on economic development, if we set aside partisanship, if we focus on New Hampshire as a whole and if we take a holistic look at our transportation systems, we’ll stay on track this time.

(Democrat Colin Van Ostern is an executive councilor from Concord.)

Legacy Comments1

While I can understand the enthusiasm for returning passenger rail to Nashua and Manchester, I hope this doesn't become a tunnel vision for that alone making or breaking the project. Don't forget about the large benefits of improving rail freight. NH's rail infrastructure is horrifying and a deterrent for low cost rail freight. Trains that try to carry freight rock back and forth as they crawl at low speeds along the rickety tracks. It is slow and at times, a safety risk. Instead, most NH businesses ship by truck which rapidly adds to the wear and tear of the highway system.

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