N.H. Executive Council votes, 4-1, to okay Boston-to-Concord rail study

Last modified: Thursday, February 07, 2013
A study of the feasibility of passenger rail service from Boston to Nashua, Manchester and Concord is back on track after the Executive Council yesterday approved a nearly $3.7 million contract for it.

The contract with URS Corp. of Salem is mostly funded with federal grants and was approved on a 4-1 vote – 11 months after the Executive Council rejected such a study on a 3-2 vote.

What changed? The council itself. Five Republicans sat on the council last year, but Democrats won three seats in November.

Democrats Colin Van Ostern of Concord, Chris Pappas of Manchester and Debora Pignatelli of Nashua voted for the contract yesterday, along with Republican Ray Burton of Bath, who had supported the contract when it first came before the council. Republican Chris Sununu of Newfields voted against it, as he did last March.

“Expanded rail service to Nashua and beyond has the potential to boost New Hampshire’s economy and create jobs. The only way we can understand the full impact of the project and ensure that taxpayer dollars are protected is to gather all of the facts,” said Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, in a statement. “Using federal funds to study the rail project is a commonsense step forward that will allow the people of New Hampshire and their elected leaders to fully evaluate the options and make an informed decision.”

The study uses more than $3.2 million in grants from the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, along with more than $411,000 in state bonds as matching funds, to study passenger rail service in the 78-mile “New Hampshire Capitol Corridor.”

The study should be complete by the end of next year.

When the Executive Council rejected the study contract last March, some councilors said the state should focus on the ongoing widening of Interstate 93 instead. Other critics have said passenger rail service won’t attract enough riders to be sustainable in the corridor.

“Even if federal money paid for every last dime of construction costs, the state would still have to pay $22 million every biennium to keep the trains running,” said Josh Elliott-Traficante, a policy analyst at the conservative-leaning Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, in a news release ahead of yesterday’s vote. “With the constitutional ban on diverting state gas tax revenues to non-highway uses, the burden of those subsidies would likely fall on the general fund.”

But supporters say the feasibility study will give policymakers valuable information as they look at transportation alternatives and future infrastructure investments. The project was resurrected following the November election.

“I’m pleased that the Executive Council is moving forward with this important viability study that will help officials make critical decisions about moving forward with this project,” said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, in a statement. “The Capitol Corridor rail project, which is funded almost entirely by federal resources, is a business friendly venture that has tremendous potential to create new jobs across southern New Hampshire while also easing traffic for commuters.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)