Corporate Rail

Who would a Boston-NH train really help?



illustration by peter noonan

With the current governor running for US Senate this year, Democrats have a laundry list of things they would like to see the next governor pursue, but not everyone agrees about which issues are the most important.

One topic where there is near uniformity of opinion among Democratic voters is on commuter rail. A Public Policy Poll in October found that 90 percent of New Hampshire Democrats support the idea of linking rail service from Boston to stops in Nashua, the Manchester airport and downtown Manchester. (New Hampshire Republicans are fairly divided on the issue.)

This is interesting since the latest proposal for commuter rail appears to be essentially subsidizing big business. Three of the four stops on the latest route are essentially meant to explicitly help large business. Strange for a state where Bernie Sanders won the primary by 22 percentage points.

 The Nashua stop is essentially meant to land at the doorstep of BAE Systems. Then there is the Manchester airport, hoping the commuter rail will drum up business, which has been lagging in recent years. The northern terminus in downtown Manchester comes at the strong behest of Dyn, the technology company. A commuter rail stop outside of their growing headquarters could help when they sell the business, or so the thinking goes.

No one can blame BAE or Dyn for looking for opportunities that could make their bottom line improve — especially if someone else pays for it. Likewise, it makes logical sense for the Nashua mayor and the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce to back the concept of rail on the off chance it can increase property values and back one of the city’s largest employers. And if the BAE location in Nashua doesn’t work, another proposed option is a stop at the mall.

What’s perplexing is how the liberal environmental cause of light rail along the I-93 corridor became something aimed at helping businesses that (other than the airport) were — and are — doing just fine before light rail came to town. And even if someone agrees to commuter rail in concept, and 74 percent of the state overall does, is such a project worth it to a person on the Seacoast or Upper Valley or Lakes Region or even Concord who likely won’t take the train to Boston? People from these regions may not be opposed to this idea in theory, but isn’t it a bigger priority for them that to fix the documented failing roads and bridges in their hometowns? Not to mention that someone living in southern New Hampshire who works at an office park with free parking along Rte. 128 in Massachusetts (or anywhere other than walking distance from a train stop) likely has no use for such a train.

Advocates for commuter rail say it will better link southern New Hampshire to downtown Boston, which is true. They also suggest that it will make working in New Hampshire more attractive for talented younger workers who prefer to live in Boston. Who knows if that’s true?

One study suggested that if rail were provided all the way up to Concord, then the state would add 5,600 new, permanent jobs. However, it would cost the state $72 million initially to build the rail and $11 million to maintain it annually. For context, the state’s surplus this year is $80 million.

The nonpartisan New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies has doused water on the idea that rail would be an economic boon for the state, should it ever happen. During a recent appearance in Nashua, the think tank’s director noted that while the project could be good for Nashua, there is no economic study suggesting that it’s good for the state.

Unlike expanded gambling, which has split Democrats but at least would bring in revenue to spend on other priorities, rail appears to spend government money to help certain businesses bring in revenue. This comes with a cost of not tackling other priorities the Democrats have, and it is baffling that rail has become such a priority.

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