Viability of commuter rail is a delusion

Roads are vital to New Hampshire’s economy; rail is inconsequential

The law of large proportions, a term coined by University of California-Irvine economics professor Charles Lave, suggests the biggest components matter most. Applied to New Hampshire transportation policy, it suggests we are better served by spending limited public resources on highway infrastructure than on transit infrastructure or operations.

Streets and highways accommodate travel by car, truck, bus, carpool, vanpool, motorcycle, bicycle and walking. In New Hampshire, these modes of transportation account for nearly 100 percent of about 1.9 billion ground-based personal trips annually. Not to mention that roads are also conduits for transporting drinking water, storm water, wastewater, electricity, natural gas, telephone and TV and Internet cable, both above and below ground. .

Highway users pay about $600 million annually in state and federal taxes, including tolls. Yet it is generally acknowledged that New Hampshire highways, roads and bridges are chronically underfunded and that there is a large backlog of deferred maintenance

In 2017, statewide, passenger rail accounted for only 102,320 trips, or 0.0054 percent of total trips. If the most optimistic Capitol Corridor ridership projections were met (a generous assumption), the proposed commuter rail between Manchester and Lowell, Mass., would increase rail’s share of personal travel from 0.005 percent to 0.041 percent. If past is prologue, most of those new train riders would come out of buses, not cars. So the net change in transit use would be akin to decimal dust.

There is no plan to tax train passengers for rail service. To the contrary, both ticket revenue and operating subsidies would flow south to the MBTA in Boston. New Hampshire residents would hold the bag for both capital bond payments and never ending operating subsidies.

In short, roads are vital to New Hampshire’s economy; rail is inconsequential. Roads matter; rail doesn’t. The law of large proportions suggests that a tax dollar spent on highways would yield far greater public benefits than a dollar spent on rail.

Nevertheless, apparently oblivious to the concept of large proportions, a dangerously large proportion of legislators and executive councilors are trying their darnedest to spend a sinfully large proportion of taxpayer money on commuter rail, which is — and would remain — insignificant.

Outside of government circles, it’s widely accepted that investing money in a project that’s guaranteed to lose money is a stupid business decision. Gullible public officials have been convinced otherwise, ironically, by the very businesspeople who would never do so with their own money.

Fed by lobbyist-generated propaganda, too many legislators and too many governor’s councilors have been fooled into believing that spending borrowed money on commuter rail would generate huge economic benefits. Simply because rail is rail, they’re told, economic reality would take a vacation.

To believe that rail is a unique economic generator, where you can lose money on every customer but still reap huge profits, takes an exceptional level of self-delusion.

Somebody once said that it’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled. If the Legislature passes Senate Bill 241, we will have all the proof we need of that .. again!

Dick Lemieux of Concord is a retired highway engineer and transportation planner who has been an observer of transportation policy for almost 50 years, including 33 years New Hampshire.

Categories: Opinion