New Hampshire high-speed rail plan derailed; DOT blames Pan Am Railways

(The following story by Robert M. Cook appeared on Fosterís Daily Democrat website on October 1, 2009.)

CONCORD, N.H. ó Plans to create a high-speed rail corridor from Nashua to Concord were derailed Wednesday after state Department of Transportation officials said they would not apply for $300 million in federal economic stimulus funds.

DOT Commissioner George Campbell laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Pam Am Railways for refusing to participate in talks with the state to create the 39-mile "Capital Corridor" project.

"By walking away from this unique and exiting initiative, Pan Am has effectively closed the window on strengthening New Hampshire's economy. Our citizens and businesses along this corridor deserve better transportation choices than they have today," said Campbell in a prepared statement.

Pam Am Railways was an important player in the process because it is the host railroad along the corridor, Campbell explained. The deadline for "Track 2 corridor service development and improvements" program applications is Friday.

Campbell said the state is discussing with Amtrak its interest in operating passenger rail along the "NH Capital Corridor." Currently, Amtrak's Downeaster train serves riders with five daily round trips between Portland, Maine, and Boston.

State officials and rail advocates said the proposed "NH Capital Corridor" project would run on 78 miles of upgraded track between Boston and Concord, connecting Concord, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and Nashua with Boston's North Station.

Campbell said the state has applied for $1.4 million in planning funds for the Capital Corridor project as part of the $8 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Mark Richardson, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association in Weare, said in May the proposed rail corridor could serve up to 600,000 riders per year, who would generate economic development for downtown businesses along the route.

"It reinvigorates the downtown areas and makes them livable and workable areas," Richardson said in May.

On Wednesday, he said, "Obviously, this is a setback."

He said until the state can work something out with Pam Am Railways to negotiate the use of the rail line, it will continue to be difficult to obtain any federal funding.

He also said that if a high-speed corridor train is created between Montreal and Boston and it ends up traveling through Vermont instead of New Hampshire, that would be a big loss for the state.

Chris Clement, deputy director of the state DOT, described the setback as "a blip" that will force the state to go down a different path.

He said DOT officials have already had good conversations with Amtrak officials and Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman told Clement he is interested in the project.

Clement said the state can also apply for federal funds next year when the federal government is expected to make another $8.5 billion available for high-speed rail projects.

If the state can reach an agreement with Amtrak, Clement said they can then apply for the federal funds next year. Given the needs of the state and the fact that it will continue to have an aging population, Clement, who lives in Durham, believes it is still a good idea to pursue the Capital Corridor project.

David Fink, president of Pam Am Railways in North Billerica, Mass., said he would be willing to negotiate with Amtrak if Amtrak approached him about using the rail line between Concord and Nashua for passenger rail.

"I do business with Amtrak every day," Fink said. "They run the Downeaster for me every day. They're business partners."

But Fink said during such difficult economic times the state should not be wasting its time on high-speed rail.

"It just doesn't make any sense," Fink said. "Let's straighten our house out and then look at what we have."

When asked if his decision to walk away from negotiations with the state in June was his way of getting back at the state for not allowing him to bid on a separate rail line, Fink would not comment.

"I don't want to sit down across the table from dishonest people," Fink said.

Fink walked away from negotiations with the state DOT on June 30 after he alleged his company was precluded from bidding on a rail line owned by state Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough.

In June, the Executive Council voted to have the Attorney General's Office investigate Fink's accusations that the state DOT was poised to renew a 10-year contract with Milford-Bennington Railroad owned by Leishman without adhering to renewal guidelines.

The council voted to extend the rail company's pact by only six months, thereby ensuring no interruption to freight delivery to the southwestern part of the state and to give the Attorney General's Office ample time to investigate Fink's claims.

Fink alleged in June that Leishman's contract required his company to notify the state in July 2008 of its intention for renewal and Leishman did not do that. Fink also said a new contract had to be approved by Feb. 1, 2009, which also did not happen.

Fink alleged that instead of the DOT opening the bid process, the contract was put on a fast track because Leishman is a member of one of the House Finance Committee's panels and the DOT was concerned not approving the contract could affect ongoing budget negotiations.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

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