A commuter train in every pot?

Despite the promises, a rail project to Boston will not revitalize the state’s economy or make NH more competitive


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ABC News recently reported on U.S. Department of Transportation data showing that 312, or 12.6 percent, of New Hampshire’s bridges are structurally deficient, making our state the 13th worst in the nation when it comes to overall bridge safety.

Despite this unfortunate status and persistent concern, some politicians continue to advocate for diverting as much as $300 million in public money to build a commuter rail line from Concord, NH, to Massachusetts. Indeed, for some politicians a commuter train is the cornerstone of their candidacy.

Train enthusiasts primarily tout commuter rail as a silver-bullet solution to economic growth. Last year, the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy examined the impact of rail on job creation. The report highlighted findings by the Federal Transit Administration that showed investments in rail transit do not stimulate economic growth, and further concluded that in cases where job growth and rail coexist, rail followed economic development and played no role in catalyzing it.

Allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to building, maintaining and subsidizing commuter trains to Massachusetts holds little promise for growing and keeping jobs in New Hampshire.

In 2012, Foss Manufacturing of Hampton decided to expand its operations in Georgia, promising 150 new jobs over three years for the Peach State. Sturm Ruger & Co., with a factory in Newport, looked to expand its business in 2013, but it also chose another state and opened a facility in North Carolina (a right-to-work state), promising 500 to 700 new jobs over five years. 

Companies like these expand operations elsewhere because it makes economic sense to do so – not due to an unrealized opportunity to expand commuter rail. Businesses choose other states because here our electricity, health insurance, workers’ compensation and business taxes are too costly, and government regulation is too burdensome.

New Hampshire is behind the curve on taking concrete steps toward reducing these major cost drivers for employers and entrepreneurs.

Grandiose political promises of a commuter train in every pot will not revitalize the state’s economy or make New Hampshire more competitive in the next decade.

New Hampshire has commuter rail today – the Downeaster, which runs from Maine through three
stops on the Seacoast. It operates with a 50 percent subsidy, and it has done next to nothing to stimulate
job growth. In fact, Exeter saw jobs decline by more than 300 in the last decade despite having a Downeaster station located in the town.

A secondary argument used by train proponents is that commuter rail can be used to encourage young workers to live in New Hampshire while enjoying an easier commute to Boston. Somehow, in their minds, exporting workers out-of-state means progress. But how much are taxpayers willing to spend upfront and on annual subsidies in order to satisfy that subset of the population, and would it make a difference? Also, do young people want to live in New Hampshire and ride a train to Boston, or is it possible this generation just wants to live and work in urban areas?

On a regular basis, there are calls at the State House for increased funding for numerous programs and services, including mental and community health, substance abuse prevention and treatment, expanded Medicaid, critical services for the developmentally disabled, building aid for local schools, the university and community college systems, and, of course, public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and the completion of the I-93 expansion. Not all of these requests can be met, and some are more a priority than others, but for their constituencies, where does a $300 million commuter rail line fit in among them? 

Jamie Burnett is a public affairs consultant based in Concord and a member of the board of the Josiah Bartlett Center. 

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