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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Burling lays out vision for new train in NH

Shira Schoenberg reports in the Concord Monitor on efforts by Rail Transportation Authority Chairman Peter Burling to bring a new commuter train to New Hampshire, using hundreds of millions in federal money.
Burling is convinced that it is possible, but it will not be easy. He faces several major obstacles: a clash with Pan Am, the railway company that owns the tracks; opposition from some backers of the state's bus system; and $8 billion in a pot of federal funding that has $101 billion in requests this year.

And Burling must convince the public that rail is a realistic goal. "New Hampshire is 25 years missing in action when it comes to rail transit," Burling said in a meeting with the Monitor's editorial board this week.
Trains are something we all agree on. We all think other people should ride them more so that our lane on the highway will be less crowded. Even the most "successful" commuter trains are massively subsidized, far more than other modes of transportation. A few inter-city links on the East Coast turn a slight profit, not counting the deferred maintainence costs that Amtrak can't afford. Long-distance lines are notoriously wasteful.

I remember during a Senate debate on Amtrak funding, Senator Sununu asked me to research the cost of a cross-country ticket on several Amtrak lines, and the cost of a one-way airline ticket. In each case, Amtrak charged far more than the airline, but still lost money on the seat. In fact, it would have been cheaper for Amtrak to buy each customer the airline ticket than to accept their fare.

Burling is seeking $154 million of federal stimulus money to get the train started, but that's just a fraction of the overall start-up costs that were budgeted at $300 million in the Department of Transportation's Wish List earlier this year. This would not include the annual operating subsidy borne by New Hampshire taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Pan Am Rail hasn't agreed to give up the right of way for the tracks the state wants to use. Burling is now threatening to use eminent domain to seize the tracks to further this railroad boondoogle.

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