The economics of rail

As New Hampshire and the nation struggle to deal with the recession and financial crisis, our elected leaders must be prepared to show vision and take bold steps – the kind needed not only to revive the economy, but lay a firm economic groundwork for the decades that lie ahead.

President-elect Obama apparently is eager to do his share. A case in point are his plans to come up with a giant economic stimulus package. While he is calling for billions for “shovel-ready” projects – many of them highway and bridge infrastructure projects for which New Hampshire and so many other states lack the money – he also is calling for us to think beyond the conventional, be it a dramatic expansion of broadband access or spending on projects that will reduce, if not outright free us, from our dependence on oil.

If, as reported in many places, a total federal stimulus package amounts to $600 billion, the state could receive as much as $3 billion. That’s a tremendous amount of money — an amount that, if spent wisely, could be transformational. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for New Hampshire.

Since it would be once-in-a-lifetime, state officials should eagerly support long-delayed plans to go full steam ahead with plans to build a passenger rail system from Nashua to Concord – one with the potential to link the vast majority of our population by rail to Boston and beyond.

Of course, construction of a passenger rail link to Boston would mean immediate jobs for those working on the project. But, if developed wisely, it could have a large economic impact, spurring development and other public benefits beyond merely providing rail service to passengers. As proven time and again around the country, strategically located train stations can be economic engines that revitalize downtowns and promote all sorts of mixed-use development.

There are other benefits as well. Trains consume 21 percent less energy per passenger mile than automobiles. A successful rail line reduces congestion and wear and tear on our roads and bridges – reducing the ever-rising cost of repairing and replacing them. A rail line linking Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to Boston and beyond could almost instantly turn that facility into an international airport, resulting in even greater foreign travel to New Hampshire and potentially convincing even more international firms to set up shop in the state. It’s even quite possible that rail, particularly especially if it caters to commuters, would help convince younger people to remain in the state.

Of course, New Hampshire has many pressing needs. But construction of a passenger rail line linking Concord to Boston could have the kind of long-term, positive economic impact that we should all embrace.