Senate reroutes rail authority

The state Senate did not repeal the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority Wednesday, but it did strip the agency of most of its power by turning it into a study commission — and in doing so got enough votes to override Gov. John Lynch’s veto, if he should exercise it.By a 16-8 vote, the Senate took away the authority’s bonding authority and other powers that would enable it to actually run a commuter rail line from the Massachusetts border up to Concord, should the state ever secure the necessary funding. Instead of having the “general purpose of developing and providing commuter rail” it will now have “the purpose of studying cost-benefit analysis of developing commuter rail.” Its service area was transformed into study areas.The House’s previous vote in March to outright repeal the authority passed by a 190-119 margin, far short of the necessary two-thirds margin needed to overcome veto, which Lynch vowed to deliver.It’s not clear whether Lynch would veto the Senate’s soft repeal, or whether the House will accept it with enough votes to overcome a potential veto.Business groups have rallied behind the rail authority — especially the Nashua and Manchester chambers of commerce — arguing that a rail line would spur development to their areas, as well as provide an alternative to the traffic jams on Interstate 93.But those against the authority were ideologically opposed to taxpayer support of rail, arguing that it interferes with the free market and actually would hurt bus transportation. They derided the authority as part of an outdated yearning for the romance of the rails.Nearly all of the money to launch the service would be provided by federal funds, but there might have to be some kind of local subsidy to continue its operation. Rail proponents say that every form of transportation is subsidized, including automotive. Rail opponents reply that user fees like the gas tax, pay for highways. But proponents shot back that the gas tax doesn’t pay for policing of the highway system.There also was disagreement as to whether an authority is needed or whether the state Department of Transportation could do the job. Proponents said it would be hard to obtain federal funding without it, and the DOT is short-staffed as it is.Republican senators from the potential rail corridor area like Sen. Gary Lambert, R-Nashua, and Jim Luther, R-Hollis, broke ideological ranks to support the authority, introducing a bill that would restore its powers somewhat. Sen. Ray White, R-Bedford, was caught in the middle, since Bedford residents would benefit from the stop, even though such an authority went against his “libertarian” principals. Thus the Senate’s soft repeal was seen as a good compromise. — BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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