By Dave Fidlin | Watchdog.org
A bill calling for further study of the capitol corridor rail project in New Hampshire is advancing, following a narrow vote in the state Senate.
On a 14-10 vote, senators last week passed Senate Bill 241, which directs the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to complete the project development phase of the rail project. As proposed, it is being incorporated into the state’s 10-year transportation improvement plan.
The rail project calls for intermingling existing infrastructure with new rail options in such areas as the Pan Am Railway, Interstate 93 and U.S. Route 3.
Throughout a nearly hourlong debate on the bill, support for further studying the feasibility of rail went squarely down partisan lines, with the Democrat-majority Senate ultimately advancing the bill forward.
Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, introduced the bill. She said 80 percent of the cost would be covered through a federal grant, with the state shouldering the remaining 20 percent.
Later in the debate, Levesque introduced an amendment, which also passed on a 14-10 vote, calling on the usage of state toll credits to fund New Hampshire’s portion of the bill.
The state’s current toll credits budget is about $800 million, according to Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, and the funds can only be used for specific purposes, such as the study.
“They’re not really cash,” Watters said of the credits, pointing to the narrow specificity in how the earmarked funds can be used.
Proponents of moving forward with the study said it would be another step toward modernizing transportation in New Hampshire and using it as a linchpin to growing the state’s economy.
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, said his two millennial children, who are in their 20s, are examples of why rail is worth considering. Sherman said his children own personal vehicles, but are more interested in using mass transit.
“This is a study, and this is a study where we’re looking forward to the next generation,” Sherman said.
Levesque said she believes rail can improve workforce development efforts and bring employers and employees alike into New Hampshire.
“Businesses are looking for this – large businesses,” Levesque said.
But the minority of Republican senators vocally and vehemently opposed furthering the study and said they were not convinced funding rail would be a long-term fruitful endeavor in the state.
“We already know we can’t afford it,” Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said, pointing to a prior study asserting the price tag could include an ongoing $5.5 million subsidy from the state. “Just having rail isn’t going to create jobs. The benefits do not outweigh the cost.”
Sen. David Starr, R-Franconia, said the proposal will disproportionately benefit only certain portions of New Hampshire.
“I’m an old-time rail fan,” Starr said. “But this is not going to do anything for my constituents.”
From his vantage point, Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said he believed special concessions were being made to advance the study.
“The rule of law is not to specify particular pet projects,” Giuda said. “This is not statewide. There’s significant discord about this.”
How much the state actually will have to pay into the study remains to be determined. A fiscal note from the New Hampshire DOT, attached to the bill, says, “the impact on expenditures and revenue will be an indeterminable amount, due to the project requiring a competitive bid and fee negotiation process in the future.”