Another View – Mike Izbicki: NH should take a step forward on Capitol Corridor Project

Union Leader – If you were a business owner considering making a critical investment in your business that could deliver tremendous returns, would you do your due diligence or pass up the opportunity? New Hampshire is faced with that very question this week as the Senate debates the fate of passenger rail expansion from Boston and the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefits and the thousands of jobs that come with it.

The state Senate Transportation Committee is currently deciding whether to reintroduce the Capitol Corridor rail expansion project into the state’s 10-Year Transportation Improvement Plan. If the state wants to develop a specific strategy for implementing rail expansion, it must reinstate the project and authorize the use of toll credits, which can be used to access existing federal funds to pay for the entire project development phase at no cost to taxpayers.

If the Capitol Corridor Project is reintroduced in the 10-year plan, the state would commit to a one-time use of $800,000 toll credits, which will allow us to access $4 million and pay for the full cost of the project development phase. Toll credits do not actually carry any real monetary value. New Hampshire accumulates these credits from state-funded construction, maintenance and improvements on the turnpike system. They are not a reserve “rainy day fund” for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT). The credits are used as a “soft match” to leverage federal dollars. In fact, every federally funded project requiring a state match in the 10-Year Transportation Improvement Plan relies on toll credits for that match.

New Hampshire will use about $30 million in toll credits as a match to fund various projects in each year of the 10-year plan, for a total of $300 million in credits. New Hampshire currently has a balance of $283 million in toll credits, and DOT projects that it will accumulate an average of $47 million in toll credits each year of the 10-year plan. After 10 years, New Hampshire will have a new balance of about $424 million credits, according to a recent DOT presentation.

It’s a myth that the $800,000 in toll credits is being diverted from other uses. With a total of $300 million in toll credits being used throughout the 10-year plan to leverage additional federal dollars to fund a number of projects, our proposed portion represents a one-time use of just 0.3 percent of that amount.

It is also a myth that the $4 million in federal funds we hope to access could be used to fix red-list bridges or crumbling roads. These funds are specifically designated for transit projects, like buses and trains, that operate within the Boston Urbanized Area. The Boston Express commuter bus service has used this type of funding in the past.

Another myth circulating is that moving forward with project development would require New Hampshire to commit to expanding the rail line. That’s simply not the case. The commissioner of DOT specifically stated that, “Including the New Hampshire capital corridor project in the 10-Year Transportation Improvement Plan and funding project development does not mean that rail expansion will necessarily occur, and the Legislature is not being asked to commit to the construction of the project.”

Lawmakers should not ignore the transformative economic impacts rail expansion would bring to the statewide economy. The project would generate 5,600 permanent jobs, 3,600 new residential units and $750 million in real estate development between 2021 and 2030. Starting in 2030, the overall economic benefits of rail would generate 1,700 new jobs every single year. The impacts of expanding passenger rail along the state’s busiest corridor will be felt all over the state with New Hampshire’s overall economic output increasing substantially. That benefits the entire state.

Lawmakers should also recognize that 74 percent of the New Hampshire public and a growing number of business, nonprofit and community leaders are demanding action on rail. It is time for the Legislature to hop on board.