Put New Hampshire back on (the) track

Sunday, May 1, 2016
By Daniel Weeks 

Sixty years ago, America embarked upon the "greatest public works project in the history of the world." The Interstate Highway System did not simply move people from A to B; it knitted our population centers together, facilitated untold commerce and economic development, and generated hundreds of thousands of jobs.

My great-grandfather Sinclair Weeks, a conservative businessman from New Hampshire, was charged with implementing the Interstate Highway System as secretary of commerce under President Eisenhower. Although few men of his generation were more committed to the principles of American free enterprise than he, Secretary Weeks, a lifelong Republican, recognized that private enterprise and public investment went hand-in-hand. No private business would ever undertake a project of such magnitude, in which the costs were concentrated and benefits diffuse, for it could never mobilize the necessary resources or justify the arrangement to shareholders. That was the job of government acting as a democratic embodiment of the public will.

The lesson is simple: It is the business of American business to responsibly and ethically advance the bottom line. It is the business of democratic governments to make the smart investments in infrastructure, education, public health, and more that lay the very foundation for economic growth - not just 60 years ago, but today. When public and private sectors do their job, people thrive.

That is sadly not the case with the New Hampshire legislature and Executive Council today. Following the House's lead, the state Senate is poised to block the biggest investment in infrastructure development and economic growth for the state in a generation: commuter rail. In spite of near-unanimous private-sector support and the approval of 74 percent of Granite Staters, Republicans in the legislature and Executive Council appear determined to reject $4 million in federal funds to enter the development phase of the Capitol Rail Corridor, as recommended by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Governor in the Ten Year Transportation Improvement Plan. No state taxpayer funds are in question at this stage.

Consider the costs and benefits of the rail proposal for our state. According to the Capitol Rail Corridor Study, a detailed analysis conducted over two years by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority under DOT, extending the Lowell-Boston rail line to Nashua, Manchester airport, and downtown Manchester would cost the state between $5-$10 million per year or approximately one-tenth of one percent of the state budget. In return for that investment, New Hampshire would leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and spur the development of 3,620 rail and real estate construction jobs, 5,600 permanent jobs, 3,600 new residential units, and nearly 2 million square feet and $750 million worth of new commercial development by 2030.

The mandate from New Hampshire businesses could not be more clear. Facing a rapidly-aging population and increasing out-migration of our youth, the state's leading Chambers of Commerce and businesses large and small have called for commuter rail to help fill vacant jobs and spur economic growth. Their voices, and those of the vast majority of residents across the state who support the project, should not be disregarded by the legislature and Executive Council.

The Capitol Corridor rail proposal is also about preserving New Hampshire's vaunted quality of life. For the tens of thousands of Granite Staters who make the daily commute for work into Massachusetts, and thousands more Massachusetts residents who commute into southern New Hampshire, rail would provide a convenient, cost-effective, and environmentally-sustainable alternative to the region's congested highways. And with half the state's population residing in the Greater Manchester-Nashua region, rail would serve an estimated 700,000 weekday commuters per year.

A project of such magnitude requires careful thought and planning to ensure that precious public resources are well spent. That is why the state legislature is not being asked to commit to rail as yet. Rather, the proposal now before the Senate in the Ten Year Transportation Plan and HB 2016 is for project development alone, including financial planning, preliminary engineering, and environmental permitting required to leverage federal funds.

For the sake of our state's economic and environmental health, our evolving work force, and our quality of life, I urge Republicans in Concord to return to their party's proud tradition of infrastructure investment and accept the $4 million in non-state funding for the Capitol Corridor. Together, we can put New Hampshire back on (the) track.

Daniel Weeks, a 12th-generation Granite Stater, is the former executive director of Open Democracy and a candidate for Executive Council in District 5.