5/10/2007

Commuter rail plan draws fire: Nashua NH Telegraph, 4/25/07

By Kevin Landrigan

BILL AT A GLANCE

BILL NO.: SB 75.

SPONSOR: Sen. David Gottesman, D-Nashua.

DESCRIPTION: This creates a New Hampshire rail transit authority to act as the public entity to operate any extension of commuter rail service from Lowell, Mass., to Manchester.

STATUS: The House Transportation Committee took more than two hours of public testimony Tuesday. The Senate approved the bill last month after changing its proposed name.

[New Hampshire] lawmakers and environmental activists offered more than 10 friendly and hostile suggestions about whether to create a rail transit authority that would oversee expansion of commuter train service from Lowell, Mass., to Manchester.

The senior House Republican on state finances – Weare Rep. Neal Kurk – said a proposed bill (SB 75) gives the authority too much unchecked power, too little government oversight and too easily may commit the state to a financial disaster.

“You think casino gambling would be bad? This would be worse,” Kurk told the House Transportation Committee.

“There is a potential monster being created.”

Kurk said the House Transportation Committee must decide if this project is affordable for taxpayers before it creates an entity that would run the train service.

“We are creating the equivalent of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Transit Authority,” Kurk said.

“If you want an agency in New Hampshire that will be responsible for the New Hampshire equivalent of a Big Dig, this is the way to go.”

He listed nine criticisms of the bill, which included no ban on hiring lobbyists or legislators and no oversight over this authority’s finances or its power to take private property by eminent domain.

A key supporter, Stephen Williams of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, said most of Kurk’s concerns can be dealt with and this bill is not in jeopardy.

Supporters have no problem with hiring bans, and would support some legislative oversight over the authority’s financial accounting or its right to use eminent domain, Williams said.

Eminent domain may be necessary to acquire sites for train stations along the route, he said. Federal law prohibits using eminent domain to buy up rail line property, Williams explained.

Rep. James Ryan, D-Franklin, chairs the House committee considering the bill.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Ryan said. “As someone just joked to me for the next month or so, I’ll be working on the railroad.”

This authority, through a board of directors, would operate the train service, collect fares, set schedules and be a conduit for any grant money to support it.

Opponents signed up against it included four other House Republicans including ex-House Speaker Gene Bartlett of Bartlett.

Democratic Gov. John Lynch offered his support and stressed in a letter this bill did not commit the state to operating or paying for the project.

“However, the establishment of the authority will allow New Hampshire to move forward in the planning and development of rail service,” Lynch wrote.

The Sierra Club offered a variety of changes, many suggested last month, which the state Senate rejected.

Arthur Cunningham, a retired lawyer from Gilmanton, said authority’s jurisdiction should be statewide and include transit options other than commuter rail.

Speaking on the Sierra Club’s behalf, Cunningham urged the Legislature to approve $5 million in “seed money.”

“It’s a bold venture but we need to take it not five years from now, not 10 years from now, we need to take it now,” Cunningham said.

Williams said the bill does not permit the authority to ask for a state subsidy.

Nashua has set aside $24 million in federal grants for the project and former Congressman Charles Bass secured another $3.5 million in 2005.

The authority would have to return to the Legislature for state support once the planning was completed in 2010, Williams added.

The House of Representatives and Gov. Lynch have approved $1 million in state-backed bonds Nashua would use to continue planning for this project and to leverage additional federal support.

This money is in a two-year public works budget (HB 25) now pending in the Senate.


Nashua NH Telegraph: http://www.nashuatelegraph.com