O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
This past January, I engaged in a round of pleasantly unproductive email with a state rep from Hillsborough. (I also own property in his district.)
The subject was passenger rail in NH, and the bill now winding through the legislature again that would preclude New Hampshire from taking any more free federal money to keep discussing the possibilities. (I guess you cannot even pay us to talk in the Granite State.)
Among this rep’s arguments against passenger rail was an assertion from a recent follow-up report that autonomous vehicles will, in “just a few years,” become a viable alternative to commuter rail.
Allow me to splutter…
First, if we keep thinking of passenger rail as only commuter rail in New Hampshire, we are being as short-sighted as Mr. Magoo.
Words matter. Words define. It’s passenger rail. And if we would all be willing to think past the daily traffic on 93 and the Everett Turnpike weekday mornings and afternoons, we’d likely see the huge potential benefits of returning robust passenger rail to the Granite State.
Now please define “just a few years,” because I am sure fairies will fly out of my fanny before my little brother ever gives up his loaded F-150 pulling trailered snowmobiles or a boat through the Lakes region, or my friend Gordon gives up pounding along in his Boxster in favor of playing board games in some driverless Wall-E mobile.
And those same fairies will also sooner turn iron into gold before autonomous tech can deal with every eventuality that will come with encountering vehicles being driven.
Tailgaters, left-lane bandits, mascara checkers, sleepy long-haul drivers and texting ninnies are not suddenly going to disappear, and I dare you, especially in the Live Free or Die state, to try legislating driven cars and trucks off the roads. That’s decades away, if ever.
But here’s the multi-million dollar question: How do autonomous vehicles solve the problem passenger rail – especially the commuter segment – is designed to relieve: traffic congestion?
Autonomous vehicles are still vehicles, still require well-maintained roads (and probably some costly infrastructure enhancements), and as New Hampshire’s population continues to grow, there will be more vehicles, requiring more pavement, at more cost.
Assuming they will eventually be viable, though, how about we look way past the bumper that’s four feet in front of us at 5:30 on Thursday afternoons and do this: put parking garages filled with by-the-minute rental EVs (and bikes and scooters) at rail depots in Nashua, Manchester, Concord, Tilton, Plymouth, Waterville Valley, Cannon, and Littleton (just to mention some potential spots on the primary north-south corridor).
Take the train, pick up a car, get to work, go back to the train, get another car at your destination and go home. And if autonomous is that good, the car can come get you at home then drive itself back to the parking garage. (Pinch me! I’m dreaming.)
And tourists (there could be lots and lots more of them when rail comes back) could take nice quiet rides along the Kancamagus, or along the shore, or out to the Monadnock region, rubbernecking the whole time. We could even program the cars to automatically pull into the outlet malls in Conway and the liquor stores on the highway.
While we’re at it, we could also go ahead and build “Live High or Die” additions onto those liquor stores, and the taxes can cover the railroad subsidy. (Oy! I need to quit dropping gummies before I write this stuff.)
Here’s an even wilder thought: Finally allow “real” casino gambling in New Hampshire, but in only one place – either the Mount Washington or Waterville valleys. But make the operators build out rail from the Massachusetts to the Canadian borders as part of the deal. They’ll make that money back faster than the fairies can fly, with untold millions of additional tax dollars blanketing the state like snowflakes.
Now think of all the EV trips (or Uber rides, if you prefer) you could take with the money you’d save by giving up the cost of acquiring, operating, insuring and maintaining even one of the two cars that sit idle most of the day and lose value in your garage every night.
In the final analysis, we need an end-to-end solution, and all the ends of New Hampshire are close enough to each other that we could easily be, as we have been for so many other things, the poster state for finding it.
Trains are not that end-to-end solution. Neither are autonomous EVs. But together…