Commuter rail study goes off the tracks

Dec. 22—CONCORD — The Republican-led Executive Council voted Wednesday to terminate a $5.5 million engineering and financial study on restoring commuter rail service from Boston through Manchester.

Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, said stopping the work now would allow the Department of Transportation to divert $1.5 million that remains unspent to other mass transit services.

"I think it is time to stop the bleeding in this project. I don't think this is going anywhere," Wheeler said.

"It's time to pull the plug, and I don't want to pay for engineering for a project that isn't going to happen for the next two years."

Councilors Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, and Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, joined Wheeler to block the project.

Councilor Janet Stevens, R-Rye, and Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, wanted to continue it.

The rejection came after the vendor, AECOM Technical Services, Inc. of Manchester, asked the council to extend the completion date for the study from the end of January to the end of September.

Transportation Commissioner Bill Cass said part of the reason the vendor needed more time was the potential sale of the former Sears store at the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua.

The store abuts the site where Nashua city officials want to locate a train station for the project.

Real estate industry leaders confirmed an agreement last month to sell the building but did not identify the prospective buyer.

Cass said city officials in Nashua and Manchester have agreed to locate and support passenger train stations on publicly owned property.

Colin Booth, communications director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, noted Wheeler and Gatsas represent Nashua and Manchester, respectively, where city officials and business leaders have long supported the project.

"Sabotaging popular infrastructure projects and holding them up as proof of government intractability; Republican playbook to the letter," Booth said in a statement.

The three Democratic nominees who opposed Wheeler, Gatsas and Kenney in the November election all endorsed the project.

Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity, praised the council's decision.

"Commuter rail has always been and will always remain a boondoggle for New Hampshire taxpayers. Putting an end to this expensive fantasy now is the right move," Moore said.

"Granite Staters know that the state needs 21st-century transportation solutions, not projects that benefit few residents but cost us hundreds of millions of dollars."

After the vote, Gov. Chris Sununu said the DOT would receive a report on the work the vendor has done to date. Supporters of the project could use those details to lobby for it to be included in the next 10-year highway plan, he said.

Work on the next highway plan starts with a planning process in the summer of 2023 and culminates in a proposal that Sununu must submit to the Legislature for final action during the 2024 legislative session.

Cass noted the vendor was planning to submit an interim report by the end of January.

He said ending the work early may mean not enough detailed information will be available for supporters to make their case for it in the future.

"Once the consultant finishes with the plan, we can figure out what to do," Cass said.

Federal Transit Administration grants paid for the entire cost of the project.

Cass said what isn't spent can be diverted to other "commuter transit" purposes under the FTA, as long as they support travel to the Boston metropolitan area.

For example, that could include grants for the commuter buses that travel daily from New Hampshire to Boston.

This year, the Republican-led state House of Representatives endorsed a bill to block spending any state money on the project.

The state Senate, also led by Republicans, rejected it, deciding to wait for the results of the study designed to estimate the annual operating and capital costs for this railroad line.

Wheeler claimed the project would require raising state and local taxes to support it.