City files brief of support for rail station

NASHUA – The city has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the New Hampshire Supreme Court, arguing the use of state gas tax money for the proposed commuter rail project is consistent with the state constitution.
Corporation Counsel David Connell wrote that the reintroduction of commuter rail promotes legitimate highway purposes by reducing traffic congestion on state highways.
Article 6-A of the state constitution restricts tapping into highway fund revenues to “highway purposes” for the construction, maintenance and “supervision of traffic” on state highways.
Connell argued the rail project would mirror the “supervision of traffic” requirement.
“The Nashua Rail Project is addressed directly to managing, directing, controlling, and guiding highway traffic by reducing traffic congestion,” Connell wrote.
Under the plan, local commuters would be able to board the train in the south end of the city and disembark in Boston. The proposed site for the rail station is at the end of East Spit Brook Road.
The last commuter rail service ended here in the late 1960s, other than a short pilot project in the early 1980s.
Some $26 million has been collected from the federal government to extend the rail lines about 11 miles to Lowell, Mass. Some $34 million is needed, according to the Nashua Regional Planning Commission.
The state Department of Transportation planned to pay the state’s share of the multimillion dollar costs from highway funds, the tax motorists pay when they fill up their gas tanks.
But the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association sued the Department of Transportation over the idea.
Without the highway fund, the project would need to find alternative funding during a time when there is little to be found.
The state Supreme Court has agreed to rule on whether state highway funds can be used for the Nashua commuter rail project.
Oral arguments are expected to be heard this winter. A decision that could determine the fate of commuter rail is expected in the spring or summer of 2004.
The NRPC also submitted a brief to the court in support of developing the train system.
The commission argued the rail system is needed to fulfill federal requirements linked to accepting transportation dollars, said Executive Director Andrew Singelakis.
Some 80 percent of money spent on highways, outside of the turnpike system, comes from Washington, D.C., and that comes with specific requirements, such as reducing air pollution and developing alternative forms of transportation, Singelakis said.
“It’s not just lip service,” he said.
There is a bigger context for the project besides helping regional commuters, such as remaining within federal air pollution mandates and transportation goals in the state, he said.
Connell relied on a court opinion going back to 1947 to advocate for the project.
Nine years after the adoption of the constitutional article, a dispute arose over the construction and maintenance of parking lots.
The justices ruled that parking lots built off of the highway with Article 6-A funds were legitimate.
In another case, the court approved using the funds to pay for law enforcement expenses for the New Hampshire State Police, Connell noted.
The common thread of these cases is that funds must be “expended for purposes which benefited the highway user, in his capacity as a highway user,” Connell wrote.
Nashua has a strong interest in the case because the busiest section of the F.E. Everett Turnpike cuts through the community and the first rail station would be in the city, Connell wrote.
The project is vital to the transportation system in Nashua by reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, Connell told the court.
NRPC surveys show an estimated 1,000 people would use the train at the outset.
The case is New Hampshire Motor Transport Association v. Carol Murray, Commissioner of New Hampshire Department of Transportation and State of New Hampshire.
Andrew Nelson can be reached at 594-6415 or