CONCORD, N.H. – Is it a boondoggle or a necessity for New Hampshire’s economic future? That was the question in the New Hampshire House of Representatives’ Committee on Public Works and Highways on Friday as they heard testimony on a bill that would prohibit the use of state funds for new passenger rail projects.
The bill, HB 110, comes on the heels of an Executive Council decision late last year not to extend a contract studying the expanding Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Lowell Line to four stations along the Merrimack River in Nashua, Bedford and Manchester as part of the Capital Corridor Project
The bill’s prime sponsor, Aidan Ankarberg (R-Rochester) specifically targeted the Capital Corridor Project in his testimony. He also opposed the idea of paying for commuter rail with a proposed transit sales tax or the concept that a commuter rail line would require government support.
“The proposed Capitol Corridor Project from Manchester to Nashua would only service a few towns in the southern part of the state. However, residents of towns like Rochester would be forced to foot the bill for something that does not benefit them,” said Ankarberg. “The reality today is that commuting patterns and work patterns are changing. There is extensive data showing ridership on commuter rail is decreasing. This is not a burden we should be placing upon New Hampshire taxpayers, especially when the demand is not there.”
Erica Layon (R-Derry) echoed Ankarberg’s statement, quoting recent media reports about the increase of remote work reducing the need for mass transit between New Hampshire and Boston and the lack of correlation between job growth and Amtrak’s Downeaster train travelling through the seacoast.
In response to a question from Louis Juris (D-Nashua) about development around rail lines in Massachusetts, Layon stated that development was largely limited to areas around the commuter rail stations themselves, citing the obstacle of the last mile problem in expanding economic impact beyond those stations without the addition of public transportation systems that could meet the need of commuting workers.
She also responded to a question from Barry Faulkner (D-Swanzey) regarding differences in salaries between employees at companies in Boston and companies in the suburbs of Boston by stating that several companies have moved their headquarters out of Boston, adding that being in Boston harmed those companies’ recruitment efforts.
Layon and Ankarberg were not alone in their opposition to state funding of commuter rail expansion from Massachusetts.
Ralph Boehm (R-Litchfield), who once served on a study committee on commuter rail in the 1990s, stated that new tracks would be needed north of Lowell given that the current tracks there are built for freight trains that can only go 15 miles per hour.
Drew Cline of the Josiah Bartlett Institute cited studies saying that a population density of 10,000 people per square mile is needed to make commuter rail lines financially feasible. Currently, Manchester’s population per square mile is 3,496 and he stated it would take 350 years for Manchester to reach that critical population density those studies cite as necessary.
Opponents of the bill also made their views heard, beginning with Charlie St. Clair (D-Laconia.) St. Clair directly challenged Ankarberg’s assertion that trains do not help the Rochester area, stating that he frequently travels from Laconia to Dover and then takes the Downeaster to Boston, often buying things in Dover or in Ankarberg’s district in Rochester before taking the train.
St. Clair said he is not the only person he knows who does this and also says he’s heard many people take the Downeaster in the other direction and take impromptu trips to Portland, Maine, instead of New Hampshire due to the easy access to train travel there.
Michael O’Brien went further in rebutting Ankarberg’s testimony, saying that the bill should be “ripped out and thrown away in the basket” due to its direct attack on the state’s two largest cities.
O’Brien stated that the Manchester/Nashua area produces approximately 30 percent of the state’s economic output, which benefits the rest of the state in terms of tax revenues. Megan Caron, a spokesperson for Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess also stated that the Nashua Board of Aldermen are prepared to spend $20 million in response to a question from Bill Boyd (R-Merrimack), challenging statements from supporters of the bill that the rest of the state would need to prop up the service on Manchester and Nashua’s behalf.
Several Manchester residents also spoke in opposition to the bill as well. Jane Haigh and Ward 2 Democratic State Representative David Preece stated the economic benefit to downtown Manchester from an expanded commuter rail line. Ward 5 Democratic State Representative Kathy Staub talked about New Hampshire residents stuck in Massachusetts traffic jams getting to work and the increased tax revenue for the state from tourists spending in Manchester’s restaurants and hotels. Manchester Chamber of Commerce CEO Heather McGrail discussed the city’s recent Build Back Better grant and expansion of biofabrication efforts by ARMI (Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute) in the Millyard that have already created thousands of jobs and workers needing a way to get there. Manchester Planning Board Chairman Bryce Kaw-uh touched on several points ranging from the reduced need for road maintenance costs by providing alternative forms of transportation for commuters to the bill’s impact on the state’s 10-year transportation plan if it passed.
Online testimony submission was approximately 10-to-1 in opposition to the bill, with the last speaker of the public hearing, Concord resident Henry Goode, closing the hearing by taking one last swipe at claims of the bill’s supporters, stating that the service would need to be subsidized.
“Subsidies, to me, is if you don’t like the project,” he said. “If you like it, it’s an investment. And I think there would be a lot of investment into New Hampshire with passenger rail service.”