My Turn: A wake-up call for proponents of commuter rail

For the Monitor
Published: 5/18/2019 12:15:31 AM
Modified: 5/18/2019 12:15:18 AM

David Brooks’s recent piece on the “half empty” Manchester airport (Monitor front page, May 10) is eerily predictive of what is sure to happen if commuter rail is expanded into New Hampshire. At least the airport enjoyed a few years of robust activity before the air passenger transportation landscape tipped favorably in Boston’s direction.

Trains, on the other hand, are predicted to begin running half empty from the get-go. More often than not, even low predictions turn out to be wildly optimistic. If experiences with other commuter train startups are predictive, initial ridership on New Hampshire’s train would be much lower than estimates, then they would fall.

That’s what happened in Rhode Island. New train service to Wickford was predicted to attract 3,386 daily passengers by 2020. By mid-2016, four years after it opened, 10 round trip trains were carrying only 222 one-way daily passengers (11 passengers per train!) at a ticket price of $3.50. Almost 95 percent of the train’s $5.2 million annual operating cost was being covered by taxpayers. Clearly, the public wasn’t buying what the state was selling, despite the ridiculously low ticket prices.

So, what did they do? Well, they did what any publicly funded passenger rail operator would do – they threw more taxpayer money at it. They stopped charging for parking in the 1,100-car parking garage at their $52 million train station and they eliminated fares altogether, thus shifting 100 percent of the train’s operating cost to taxpayers. Daily ridership increased to 353, then fell back to 328.

Free fares couldn’t generate even one tenth of the predicted ridership, but the state transportation director patted himself on the back for increasing ridership by 50 percent. Lipstick, meet pig.

Comparing estimate to estimate, New Hampshire’s train is predicted to cost 4.7 times as much as Rhode Island’s train and to carry only three quarters as many passengers. New Hampshire’s estimated startup cost per new passenger is 6.2 times that for Rhode Island, which failed miserably.

The New Hampshire Legislature is again considering a bill to enter the project development phase of a multimillion dollar commuter rail project that has been predicted to fail, from lack of use, by one commuter rail study after another. Senate Bill 241 doesn’t include a cost estimate and the fiscal note says the bill’s impact is “indeterminable.” So, the bill is essentially a blank check. What could go wrong? Nobody is asking. Nobody is telling.

Unaware of, or unswayed by, the reality of plummeting transit usage nationwide or by repeated failures of commuter rail startups from Rhode Island to Vermont to New Mexico, and apparently unaware of the strong tendency history has for repeating itself, in February all 14 Democratic senators voted to pass the bill along to the House.

Political support for the train is based on the irrational belief, perpetuated by lobbyists, that it is possible to send tens, if not hundreds, of millions of New Hampshire dollars to MBTA in Boston and rack up “tremendous economic benefits” in New Hampshire.

Never before has a state enjoyed economic prosperity as a result of spending money in another state. Yet, 14 New Hampshire senators are willing to gamble an “indeterminable” sum of taxpayer money in an attempt to do just that.

Taxpayers can hope – but shouldn’t expect – that members of the Democrat-controlled House will be more skeptical and more considerate of New Hampshire taxpayers. If SB 241 passes the House and is signed by the governor, it’s only a matter of time until we see an article in the Monitor bemoaning the “half empty” trains running up and down the state.

(Dick Lemieux lives in Concord.)




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