Nearly a year ago, LivableMHT decried the incredibly shortsighted 3-2 decision by the Executive Council to not go forward with a study of the Capitol Corridor commuter rail project, which would have been funded nearly entirely through federal grants.
Today, however, the new pro-rail majority on the Executive Council voted 4-1 to conduct the study, putting commuter rail in the Merrimack Valley back on track. Only two members of the Executive Council were also serving last year–longtime councilor Ray Burton, a Republican representing the North Country, and Chris Sununu, also a Republican, who represents the Rockingham County suburbs, including Exeter, home to one of the busiest rail stations north of Boston. Both councilors’ votes were unchanged from last year–Burton joining the three newly elected Democrats (who hail from the state’s three largest cities and presumably future rail stations: Manchester, Nashua and Concord) in favor of the study, and Sununu now the lone vote against what could be one of the state’s biggest economic development tools in the coming decades.
If Sununu had listened to the vast majority of New Hampshire residents and the vocal business groups in the state, the study could be under way already. While New Hampshire has lost a year, it is reassuring that the rail study is back on track, and that it no longer looks like New Hampshire will be passed by when it comes to rail improvements, which are crucial to freight traffic, and attracting and retaining young people, businesses, tourists and students.
In today’s Union Leader, Councilor Colin Van Ostern (Democrat of Concord, representing District 2) explains why he supports the Capitol Corridor project:
The Capitol Corridor rail project is back on track again. The rail and transit study that was halted by last year’s Executive Council now has strong, bipartisan support that reflects its popularity with business leaders and New Hampshire residents alike. The study will very likely pass shortly and be completed by the end of next year.
But this resuscitated study alone won’t determine rail’s fate in New Hampshire. To prevent another political derailment in the future, we must think ahead:
–Judge rail based on overall economic development, not ridership alone. Earlier this month, an executive from the largest private employer in Concord and another from the fastest-growing startup in Manchester each pled the case for rail to me – separately – using almost the same words, hours apart: “Help us grow, bring new workers to the area and reduce barriers between us and Boston so New Hampshire’s advantages shine even brighter,” each said.
They both want rail because of its overall economic impact and they recognize that rail boosts their own (and the state’s) economic growth. This is the prize – and it is far larger than the economic bump from rail line construction jobs or the loss from covering operating costs.
–Secure a long-term, bipartisan vision, not stop-and-go development. When one party alone controlled the fate of rail in Concord last year, the project stalled (and by the way, that opposition cost some lawmakers their seats). Now, rail is back on track because Democrats and Republicans are working together to re-start this study. If the past decade is a guide, the Republican and Democratic parties will each have their day in the sun in our state before this project is done – so we need to embrace this as a practical issue, not a partisan one. We’re in this together.
–Benefit the whole state, not just one community. The strongest case for rail – both economically and politically – is one that benefits as many New Hampshire residents as possible. Bridging Boston with Nashua’s businesses, Merrimack’s outlets, Manchester’s airport and Concord’s connections to the lakes and North Country would fill the hole left by today’s existing rail lines along our state’s Eastern and Western borders. Ideologically driven opponents of rail want to stake one region of the state against another, but what’s best for New Hampshire is a transit plan that benefits all of us.
–Consider our transportation infrastructure as a whole, not just a stand-alone project. Rail must succeed as part of a well-planned transportation web that connects Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, an expanded I-93 and a rapidly-growing bus network across the state. Less traffic, more mobility and more commerce with our neighbors to the south creates a strong foundation for economic growth in New Hampshire. Both our bus lines and the Downeaster rail line in the Seacoast are setting records and stand to gain from the amplification rail provides.
There’s no question that the promise of rail for New Hampshire is huge: attracting new workers for growing New Hampshire businesses; delivering tourists, shoppers and business visitors to our state; lessening traffic on I-93; easing commutes; and amplifying the growth of new Granite State bus routes and the Manchester-Boston Regional airport.
There are also significant costs to building and operating rail, and the coming study should shed some light on the costs of transit options in the Capitol Corridor. Once that study is completed, we must take an objective and comprehensive look at how those costs stack up against the tremendous economic benefits of rail.
This year won’t produce a final decision on rail, but it will lay the foundation for whether that ultimate decision is made the right way. If we focus on economic development; if we set aside partisanship, if we focus on New Hampshire as a whole; and if we take a holistic look at our transportation systems; we’ll stay back on track this time.
This post is one in an ongoing LivableMHT series, Livable/Unlovable, that will comment on proposals, projects and other topics that are either good (Livable) or bad (Unlovable) from a livability/urban development viewpoint.