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Reversing course, House approves funding for commuter rail study

  • FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2011 file photo, the Amtrak Downeaster passenger train travels through Portland, Maine. Banners were being installed and track work continued Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, as the rail line is prepared to extend its route from Boston and Portland onward to Brunswick in November. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

Monitor staff
Published: 3/15/2018 6:41:32 PM

The New Hampshire House approved the use of federal funds to study commuter rail within the state Thursday, overturning a committee decision in a surprise move.

In a 166-160 vote, representatives gave the green light to a last-minute amendment to the state’s 10-year transportation plan, allowing $4 million in federal money to go toward designing a rail corridor that could connect Concord, Manchester and Nashua to Massachusetts. 

The revised bill overrides an attempt by a House committee to divert the money into a study of bus service expansion from Concord to Nashua, which connects to Boston. Commuter rail has long been politically divisive with Democrats holding it up as a key to attracting younger residents and Republicans deriding it as a waste of public money that’s unlikely to attract demand.

As passed Thursday, House Bill 2018 – the 10-year transportation improvement plan – would now use the federal money toward both the rail and bus services studies.

Democrats were elated.

“Commuter rail is a top priority of our state’s business community and is strongly supported by Granite Staters,” House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff said in a statement.

And Rep. Skip Cleaver, D-Nashua, who submitted the floor amendment, praised its passage.

“The Merrimack Valley Corridor is the largest metro area in the U.S. without rail service,” he said in a statement. “It is no surprise that chambers of commerce in New Hampshire’s largest cities believe rail will be key to their continued growth. I thank the House for its vote in support of this important federally funded study.”

The move came unexpectedly, adding to what has been a volatile journey for the rail study in the past year. As a candidate in 2016, Gov. Chris Sununu rejected the idea of commuter rail, calling it a “boondoggle” that couldn’t become self-sufficient. But his tune changed late last year, as New Hampshire vied for a long-shot bid to host the second Amazon headquarters in Londonderry. Seeking to bolster the state’s public infrastructure, Sununu pledged to study commuter rail as a selling point; he signed off on a 10-year plan that included it in January.

After New Hampshire failed to make the shipping company’s shortlist, Sununu withdrew his support, saying it had been contingent on Amazon’s bid.

On March 1, the House Public Works and Highways committee followed suit, removing commuter rail study from the bill and zeroing in on bus service enhancement. Thursday’s amendment reversed that move.

A spokesman for the governor was not available to comment on the governor’s position on the amended plan. But House Republicans made their objections heard.

“We’ve already studied it over and over,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, referring to past, smaller-scale studies of the idea. Ultimately, he predicted, any attempt would flounder and require taxpayer support down the line.

“It’s $4 million to throw away at something that we’re not going to do” he said. “I’d rather see that put toward the (federal) deficit or something, or to solving opioid problems.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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