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N.H. House-Senate Panel Resurrects Study on Boston Commuter Train

Concord — A House-Senate public works oversight panel resurrected studying a Boston through Nashua to Concord commuter rail project yesterday.

The Capital Budget Overview Committee approved spending up to $1.9 million to do a study looking into transportation alternatives for this so-called Capitol Corridor. Federal officials had set a deadline of this December to complete the year-long study but have given assurances that it will be extended another year, said Patrick Herlihy, state director of aeronautics, transit and rail for the Department of Transportation.

Committee Chairman and State Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, stressed there was no state taxpayer dollars being spent on the effort and it should provide both supporters and foes of the project with detailed ammunition.

Sen. David Boutin, R-Manchester, said he remains skeptical about the feasibility of rail but agreed the study should be completed.

“I think it is the prudent thing to do to look at this issue and whether or not the data will support passenger rail,” Boutin said. “I am not persuaded at all that the data that will come back will indicate that it is fiscally or economically sustainable.”

Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry, was the only committee member to register his opposition.

“I will be voting against it. Philosophically tolls, gas tax money should stay with the highway system,” Rausch said.

Federal grants totaling $1.6 million will pay for the study. The state is matching that with $360,000 in credits from New Hampshire turnpike toll money that had already been spent on federal roads such as Interstate 93.

The vote followed a vigorous, behind-the-scenes lobbying effort of political and business leaders from Nashua and surrounding towns.

“I heard from Nashua Mayor (Donnalee) Lozeau and a lot of folks supporting this,” said Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford. “They obviously had done their homework.”

The request now heads to the Executive Council where supporters are expecting a different result than they got a year ago when the council voted, 3-2, to turn down a similar planning grant. A year ago, Republicans held a 5-0 majority on the council; the voters have changed the council to 4-1 in favor of Democrats.

Former Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, had cast the decisive vote against the project and faced many questions about that view during a re-election campaign he lost to Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua.

“I think this was the tough hurdle to overcome,” said Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and a vocal rail supporter. “We don’t presuppose anything but believe the council looks good for us. This is the best day of the new year for me.”

New Gov. Maggie Hassan supports the planning grant request and has directed state transportation officials to bring this item to the council when it meets next month, DOT officials confirmed today.

When state officials maintained this grant would examine alternatives to rail — such as expanding the commuter bus to Boston network — Boutin rejected that notion.

“That was what this all about. Let’s not paint the pig with lipstick. This is about passenger rail,” Boutin said adding he got “20 to 30” phone calls and emails for the grant all from rail supporters.

In an unrelated matter, the committee also approved spending $1.4 million to buy Armstrong Wood Products at 25 Crown St., Nashua, and convert it into a park-and-ride lot.

State officials said at a later date they will ask for the committee’s support for the entire, $6.5 million cost to build the lot that would be located about three blocks east of Nashua’s downtown. The effort includes a $175,000 hazardous waste study of the parcel.

Nashua Economic Development Director Tom Galligani said the lot augments three park-and-rides that are all close to exits off the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

“We see this as a location that is right after folks are coming over the Hudson bridge on the Merrimack River,” Galligani said. “We are looking at relocating some of our bus lines and routes so can allow them to get right over the bridge to Hudson and Litchfield and this would allow us to make greater use of this park and ride facility.”