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Stimulus money for rails not necessarily headed to New Hampshire

(The following story by Kevin Landrigan appeared on the Nashua Telegraph website on December 12, 2009.)

NASHUA, N.H. — All signs point to the first round of stimulus money for high-speed commuter rail – $8 billion worth – getting doled out next year predominantly to mega-population centers in the West, Midwest and Northeast.

Last July, New Hampshire decided to pass on applying for money to build a Boston-to-Concord rail upgrade after talks failed to get support from the line’s main operator, Pan Am Systems of Nashua.

The state did request a small planning grant to finalize such a project.

Despite continued competition and the many obstacles that lie in their path, state Transportation Commissioner George Campbell and New Hampshire Rail Authority Chairman Peter Burling are pressing ahead with seeking as much as $249 million in the second round that comes next summer.

“We have had some very, very encouraging talks in Washington,’’ Burling said last week. “I’m always accused of being an optimist, but I believe we will put together a very attractive proposal to allow us to run commuter rail into New Hampshire within the next four years.’’

Campbell said the Boston-to-Concord commuter rail project is part of a 10-year, $2.1 billion highway bill that he’s proposing to Gov. John Lynch.

The Executive Council and Campbell unanimously approved the recommendations Thursday following 37 public hearings across the state.

Campbell has acknowledged the state is also looking into incremental commuter rail scenarios such as running a rail link over the state border into Nashua.

Campbell and Burling believe the strongest pitch to the federal government would upgrade the New Hampshire tracks from Nashua to Concord to accept commuter trains going at least 70 mph.

The 10-year highway bill assumes the state would receive Federal Rail Administration support for the project. It doesn’t address how the state would cover any match for that federal backing if there was one, however.

The first-year, $8 billion grants contain no match requirement, but subsequent awards could, Campbell said.

“We really don’t know what, if any, match the feds are going to be looking for from the states,’’ Campbell said. “I’ll cross that railroad bridge when we get to it.’’

For example, rail supporters are lobbying Congress to make additional mass transit grants part of a second, limited stimulus package, President Obama announced last week.

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation for a second round of rail grants for $4 billion; the Senate responded with $6 billion over five years, and both sides will now try to compromise on the details.

The Boston-to-Concord service would fall well short of a high-speed corridor like the strong proposals put in for Los Angeles to San Francisco, Chicago to Detroit and Boston to Washington corridors, all with trains traveling up to 150 mph.

The New Hampshire plan would fall into the category of city-to-city, “emerging high-speed rail’’ projects. It would put the state in better position of eventually getting the high-speed link, Burling said.

“This would be done with an eye toward, in the longer term, creating a high-speed corridor all the way through the state, into Vermont and up to Montreal,’’ Burling said.

Massive projects favored

Ever since Obama announced the $8 billion in high-speed rail grants, the battle for the money has been furious.

More than $100 billion in initial ideas came in from 40 states, including New Hampshire. By the final application deadline last July, total requests were $57 billion, more than seven times greater than the money that’s being given out.

Burling believes at least two massive high-speed corridors will get much of the money – those that serve the largest number of customers and which could obtain permits to go forward relatively quickly.

“The administration wants to start with some visible projects that have a great likelihood of success, and that makes perfect sense,’’ Burling said.

In New Hampshire, Pan Am President David Fink broke off talks with state officials last summer over the state’s refusal to let his company bid for the Milford-to-Bennington railroad corridor that’s operated by state Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough.

The state can’t acquire outright the rail line right of way without Pan Am’s support. Federal law permits the nation’s largest commuter rail company, Amtrak, to become the commuter provider as long as it negotiates with and then pays Pan Am a market price for that access.

State officials have asked if Amtrak would be willing to take on that responsibility. Pan Am has a good working relationship with Amtrak elsewhere and is open to those negotiations, Fink has said.

It makes more sense, given the economy and the project’s cost, for the state to first test the market by starting a short commuter line from Boston to south Nashua, Fink suggested.

Burling said the status of private talks on those fronts has to remain sensitive.

“I can’t comment on that,’’ Burling said of discussions with Amtrak or Pan Am officials.

Population, economy rate high

America 2050, a national initiative on infrastructure, economic development and environmental challenges, proposed a matrix for how the first grants should be handed out.

The group’s report concluded they should be based on population, economic activity, train connections, the existing travel market and urban density.

The lion’s share of the early money, the report continued, should go to metro regions that link with large cities, often in different states.

“These are the places that have the population, the economies and the existing travel markets to really support these systems,” associate planner Yoar Hagler recently told USA Today.

The Boston rail corridor south is particularly attractive, since Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and New York are the four largest metro regions in the Northeast, the report said.

Amtrak’s Acela Express already runs from Boston to Washington at top speeds of 150 mph, although only on small stretches.

The America 2050 report cited recent federal studies that placed airports in Boston and Philadelphia in the bottom 10 for on-time performance.

The Boston-to-Concord market isn’t on the list of top 100 city-to-city connections in the report.

Burling doesn’t think northern New England will get shut out of these initial grants. Upgrading trains for the Downeaster line that runs from Portland, Maine, through New Hampshire towns and on to Boston is a strong proposal, he said.

Burling predicted some money would go to the Amtrak rail link from Worcester, Mass., to Boston and the so-called “Knowledge Corridor’’ that would connect New Haven, Conn., with Springfield and Greenfield, Mass.

The America 2050 report graded Worcester to Boston and the Knowledge Corridor as deserving to be in any first phase of high-speed rail link; the Downeaster was ranked in the third phase.

Boston to Concord ranked only as one of many “other potential corridors’’ in the U.S.

Travel-related issues

Lynch plans to fine-tune a 10-year highway plan, and then submit it to the state Legislature next month. State lawmakers also will have other rail-related issues on their 2010 docket.

State Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford, wants to require that lawmakers approve any bonds the rail authority may decide to issue to help pay the commuter rail expansion project. A 2-year-old law creating the rail authority gave it bonding powers without legislative permission.

“All states are watching their bonding capacities and debt ratios, and this one is no different,’’ Graham said. “I just think it makes sense the Legislature approve ahead of time any bonding for rail.’’

State Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, is vice chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee.

“I’m for this project as long as there is a way to pay for the upgrade and a viable way to pay for it going forward,’’ Campbell said.

“The state has every right and should be seeking federal grants for commuter rail. Even getting those grants is a long way from coming up with a sustainable way to cover the operating and capital costs for the project.’’

Monday, December 14, 2009

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