Stimulus for rail? It's a long road

CONCORD – The question of whether expanding commuter rail through Nashua will become part of the federal stimulus package is a year from being answered, state and local officials said last week.

The process is a long, bureaucratic and political minefield in contrast to the “shovel-ready” road and bridge projects that Gov. John Lynch and other governors already have moving ahead in the last few weeks.

“We’ve got quite a wait ahead, but at the same time, there is just a whole lot of work to do,” said Steve Williams, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission.

Lynch said on Thursday that there’s little specific to report, but he’s brimming with optimism that when the smoke clears, New Hampshire’s commuter-rail effort will get federal stimulus cash.

“I expect we will be offering a very competitive application with our request,” Lynch said.

How much money New Hampshire could get, and for what, remains to be seen.

“The rules haven’t even been written for the program,” Lynch said.

There seems to be growing consensus that New Hampshire would make a big mistake if it made a request on the cheap in the hopes of getting something. Instead, rail advocates insist the state should ask for the full $300 million needed to bring commuter trains from the Massachusetts border to Nashua and Manchester, along with a train station in Merrimack.

This would also upgrade those lines for high-speed rail.

“There is never going to be a better opportunity for decades than this one to realize the dream of high-speed trains carrying passengers from Boston through to Nashua and to Manchester,” said former state Sen. Peter Burling, who chaired the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. “This is not the time to think small and incremental.”

Assistant Transportation Commissioner Jeff Brillhardt said his agency and state stimulus director Orville “Bud” Fitch are anxiously awaiting some federal guidance.

“We can’t get moving on this until the administration lays out the ground rules,” Brillhard said.

That won’t come soon, Williams said.

These two federal agency and dollar signs are in play for the project:

Federal Transit Administration: Roughly $5 billion.

Federal Railroad Association: $8.5 billion.

Both include competitive grant programs, but the FTA money is seen as a long shot at best.

Williams said there are big dollar applications that have been in the FTA’s passenger-rail pipeline for years, and they include mega-projects in New York City and Washington, D.C.

“Much of that money, if not all of it, looks to be spoken for,” Williams said. “This won’t stop us from pursuing that, since going for grants on two tracks is better than on one.”

The FRA contest is wide open, and it represents far more cash than this group has had custody of in its history.

The working timetable gives the federal rail agency six months to complete the rules for this competition. Applicants then have three months to get their bids in, and the agency would get three more months to make its awards.

“We’re looking realistically at a year out from now,” Williams said.

The FRA grants are solely for high-speed rail corridors, which is why supporters believe upgrading New Hampshire’s rail network is key to the project’s success.

Burling believes this has a political component, as well.

“Once you put in the minds of the public the notion of sitting on very fast trains nonstop from Boston to New Hampshire, there’s no question this would get a lot more attention from the public,” Burling said.

“Politically, we know there is strength in numbers. To be sure, the Nashua project is further along than any other segment, but adding Manchester and company to the mix creates that much more built-in support.”

This won’t stop rail skeptics from demanding to know where the taxpayer dollars are going to come from to subsidize high-speed service should it ever get here – federal, state or local dollars, or all of the above?

Meanwhile, supporters are keeping a close watch on the 2009 federal budget bill, which includes a $1.9 million earmark to complete critical studies for the rail project.

Congressman Paul Hodes, D-N.H., got that request into the House-passed bill, and co-sponsoring Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is leading the effort to keep it intact in the Senate.

Williams said the money would be needed to pursue both grant programs.

This massive federal spending bill has 9,000 earmarks in it, yet early signs are that President Barack Obama would sign it despite his opposition to earmarks during the 2008 campaign.

“One man’s earmark is another man’s pork, but clearly, for us to get this really off the ground, that money is critical,” Williams said.

Closer to home, the focus later this month will be on trying to get staff support from the state Department of Transportation to implement the transit authority’s work agenda.

Lynch reported that private talks with rail line owner Pan Am Railways are going slowly, and include side issues of less interest to the state, such as whether to create a commuter rail spur onto Route 101A west of Nashua.

Not surprisingly, longtime fans such as Burling remain bullish.

“Many things need to happen, but for a train enthusiast like me, there’s plenty to be encouraged about,” Burling said.