Friday, August 21, 2009

New Hampshire competes for $1.5 million grant

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Peter Burling, chairman of the Rail Transit Authority in New Hampshire, envisions a rail line running between Boston and Concord, N.H., at speeds of up to 90 mph, the Concord Monitor reports. The rail would carry Massachusetts shoppers to Nashua and travelers to Manchester Airport. It would take sports fans to Celtics games and workers to their jobs in Boston.

 

Burling is convinced that it is possible, but it will not be easy. He faces several major obstacles: a clash with Pan Am, the railway company that owns the tracks; opposition from some backers of the state's bus system; and $8 billion in a pot of federal funding that has $101 billion in requests this year.

And Burling must convince the public that rail is a realistic goal. "New Hampshire is 25 years missing in action when it comes to rail transit," Burling said in a meeting with the Monitor's editorial board this week.

Burling said he has heard that the federal government will set aside $8 billion a year over the next six years, and $500 billion for inter-city and high-speed rail over the next 10 years.

"The (Obama) administration is trying to catch up with demand," Burling said. "They know (rail's) popularity is off the charts. People want it back."

State Rep. Bob Williams, a Concord Democrat and head of the House Transportation Committee, said he is "cautiously optimistic" that New Hampshire will get the money.

New Hampshire is asking for $154 million to upgrade tracks with new rails, ties, rail cars, sidings and digital signals, and an additional $50 million for railroad acquisition, to buy the rights to the tracks. The state will submit an application for planning money, asking the federal government to pay $1.5 million, with an equal state match, some of which would be funded with private donations.

Burling is hopeful that even if Concord does not get construction money this year, it will get the planning money and could then do the engineering and design and apply for more money in the future.

Burling, a former state senator and member of the Democratic National Committee, is tasked with establishing the new rail line. In his vision, the rail would run along an existing freight track line, through Massachusetts to Nashua, Manchester, Manchester Airport and Concord. There would be 12 to 14 trains a day taking 90 minutes to travel between Concord and Boston. The cars would be fitted with wireless Internet and clean diesel technology.

Burling pointed out that the state has the Vermonter to the west and the Downeaster to the east, but nothing in New Hampshire's center. He said Amtrak, which runs the Vermonter and Downeaster, would also manage the Concord rail line.

Burling said market studies have estimated ridership at 3,000 to 5,000 people each weekday from Manchester and an additional 1,000 to 1,500 people from Concord. "We think there is a market for 12 to 14 throughout the day," Burling said.

Burling also accused Pan Am Railways, which owns the tracks, of being an obstacle to the plan by refusing to grant the state operating rights. Burling said if a deal cannot be reached with Pan Am, the state could potentially use its rights of eminent domain to take the tracks. Amtrak also has some power to compel trackage rights over private railroads, Burling said.

Pan Am recently got into one dust-up with the state after it accused a state commissioner of improperly awarding a contract to a railroad company owned by a state representative without an open bidding process. In 2007, Pan Am and the state came up with a plan for Pan Am to operate a new rail lane, but two separate plans eventually evolved as to where the train would go and how much of an upgrade would be done.

David Fink, president of Pan Am, said that if Amtrak approached him to try to create a deal like the two companies have to run the Downeaster, he'd be open to the idea. But he confirmed that he is no longer in discussions with the state about the rail line.

Burling said Pan Am would benefit from the project, since its tracks would be upgraded with federal money.

Fink responded, "I'm not asking for anyone to upgrade my tracks.

Fink said he was skeptical of the plan because even if the state got federal money, it would still need $10 million to cover operating costs.

"I think when the state is laying people off, reducing jobs, it is not the time to ask for $10 million to run a passenger train," Fink said.

Burling said $5 million to $6 million of the cost would come from the fare box. Some money could come from federal grants.

One possibility for generating revenue would be creating tax increment financing districts, in which the additional tax revenue coming from the rail properties would go back to maintaining the trains.

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