My Turn: The high price of car culture in New Hampshire

  • In this June 2015 file photo, northbound traffic (left) passes underneath old railroad tracks in Nashua. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 5/28/2019 12:10:21 AM

Recently Dick Lemieux’s anti-rail rhetoric (Monitor Opinion, May 18) invoked Manchester airport as a cautionary tale. I contend for different reasons.

The 2015 $6 million rental car center was built “due to limited ground transportation options and infrastructure.” The 2012 $175 million new access road connection and the 4,800-car parking garage expansion favor automobiles.

If transportation alternatives existed, Manchester may attract more travelers from Boston Logan airport.

A century ago one could travel from here to Boston or Montreal by rail. Owning personal vehicles for regional transport was not required. Then mid-20th-century highway engineers developed roads and eliminated transportation choice.

The financial impact, travel restriction, social isolation and externalities are easily ignored by highway engineers.

Concord leadership, advised by Lemieux and others, have solidified automobiles as de facto transportation and car culture.

Personal cars and maintenance, municipal and commercial parking, paving and maintenance, and state and federal government infrastructure of freeways, roads and bridges impose financial impact and subsidy.

Individual auto ownership requires $5,000 to $8,000 annually and low hourly wage employees can work one-third of a year to afford a car. It is estimated that every car requires five to eight additional parking spaces. Parking is necessary, desired and preferably free at home, work, grocery store, bank, post office, shopping mall, store, movie theater, restaurant, church, etc. When parked at home, the additional parking and roadway represent anticipatory real estate and lost opportunity cost.

Concord auto registrations provide 10% of the city budget while Fiscal Year 2020 paving programs require increased property taxes of 0.25%. The rehabilitation of one downtown parking garage is $5.3 million and the next will cost $2.3 million. Meanwhile the failing parking enterprise fund is researched, subsidized and reconfigured with expanded meters and new rates to keep up. The subsidy of road expansion, maintenance, plowing, salting, sweeping and repaving are budgeted and taxed.

The state of New Hampshire expansion of Interstate 93 is estimated at $270 million while Lemieux rails against alternatives, and other modes are non-existent if not inconvenient and dangerous. Level 1 planning as described by Vuchic in Transportation for Livable Cities is conspicuously missing.

Car culture costs are passed through payments for housing, goods and services regardless of individual utilization of the roads or parking. The climate impact of the systems, conspicuously absent as environmental externalities, are ignored.

Contrary to what Lemieux suggests, multi-modal transportation works because people can get around without renting or owning a car and less parking is required when they do.

When I fly to Portland, Ore., light rail from PDX takes me to downtown and to western suburbs and multi-modal transportation systems, including walking, transit and bicycling, provide mobility locally. In Minnesota, at MSP, light rail to rapid bus delivers me in 40 minutes without renting a car. Again, bicycle infrastructure and transit provide local mobility.

On return to New Hampshire, few options exist in Lemieux “car country.”

Leadership should invest in multi-modal transportation beyond 20th-century highway engineer thinking.

(Robert T. Baker lives in Concord.)

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