Rail finance bill may be sent to study

CONCORD – The campaign for legislation to bring about a state-financed commuter rail station and parking garage remains alive – but just barely.

A Senate committee voted, 4-1, on Tuesday to recommend shipping off to study a bill (SB 446) that would put the state on record in support of the station on the proposed site at East Spit Brook Road.

If the Senate adopts this move, however, supporters such as Sen. Joe Foster, D-Nashua, could revive it this spring if the Supreme Court were to rule that it is constitutional to use gasoline tax money for rail projects.

“If the court came back, this would allow us to act on this,’’ said Foster, sponsor of the bill.

The New Hampshire Motor Transportation Association sued the state over spending $115,000 of engineering money to study the project. The state Supreme Court heard arguments on the dispute last week.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Clegg, R-Hudson, said the votes were there on his Senate Capital Budget Committee to kill the bill, but he agreed to recommend it be sent to interim study as a courtesy to Foster.

“If the Senate adopts this position, it means the subject matter is still in play if the court took some action at a later date,’’ he said.

Clegg remains opposed to using gasoline tax money for rail and pressed several witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing to defend a subsidy when past attempts at restoring commuter rail have been short-lived.

“What sources of revenue are you supporting to dedicate to rail?’’ Clegg asked one supporter.

Nashua Community Development Director Kathy Hersh said the state faces a crossroads and that benefits from rail to the region’s quality of life are greater than a financial cost-benefit analysis.

“It’s time the state made a commitment to commuter rail or decided not to do anything about it,’’ she said.

Nashua Regional Planning Commission Acting Executive Director Stephen Williams said 25,000 cars a day were coming from Nashua and surrounding towns and going to work in Massachusetts.

Roughly one in five told the U.S. Census Bureau they work in Boston, Williams said.

“This represents a solid base for ridership,’’ he said.

But Sen. Carl Johnson, R-Meredith, questioned the financing.

“This appears to be something that would not be close to breaking even,’’ he said.

Foster said the project has the backing of the mayor, all the city’s 15 aldermen and 25 of 27 House members who represent Nashua.

“This project has strong support in our community,’’ he said.

Robert Sculley, a lobbyist for the truckers, questioned if the public would decide on its own to subsidize the rail project.

Sculley pointed out that state lawmakers turned down two proposed amendments to the state constitution to expressly endorse highway money use for mass transit.

“Put this out for a referendum and see if the taxpayer would support it,’’ he said.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 224-8804 or landrigank@telegraph-nh.com.