De-Railed? - Granite Grok


This editorial from today’s Union Leader on Commuter Rail caught my attention.

PETER BURLING, head of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority (NHRTA), was in Manchester this week to promote his dream of building a commuter rail line from Concord to Boston.

He suggested that operating commuter rail would cost taxpayers less than maintaining the highway.


The rail line would cost $5 million to $8 million a year to run, Burling said. (The NHRTA officially estimates a total cost of $10 million a year, with 50 percent covered by fares, but all these numbers are guesses.) “Compare that to the cost of maintaining our highway system,” he said.

OK. According to the state Department of Transportation, I-93 costs roughly $10,000 per lane per mile to maintain. At four lanes, I-93 between Concord and the border would cost about $1.6 million a year. After the Manchester to Massachusetts widening, it would be about $2.6 million a year — roughly half of Burling’s lowest estimate for operating the train. Double the I-93 maintenance figure, just to be safe, and we’re still at the low estimate for the state’s portion of operating a train.

And the train would carry only a tiny fraction of the traffic the highway carries.

That makes it enormously more expensive per passenger- mile. Financially, highways make more sense.

Last December I suggest that rail would cost us more here, not just for the system but as an impact on the budgets of local towns…

Passenger rail costs are not limited to the root infrastructure itself.  That would be rails versus roads.   Taxpayers would have to subsidize passenger rail-cars, fuel the cars, maintain the cars, probably pay the workers and their benefits, and support the entire system when it fails to turn a profit, which will be always and probably forever.   While roads have some other infrastructure nothing compares to rail.

In contrast people buy their own cars, and pay for their own fuel and maintenance.  They may buy the car to get to a job that’s probably not funded by taxpayers either. (Except in Concord) Taxpayers do not need to subsidize any of that where with rail we’re supporting all of it.  So there is no possible apples to apples comparison to road and rail taxes. 

The state also makes a lot of money on registration fees and fuel taxes for road vehicles, tolls and license plates, and some towns rely so heavily on registration fees that even minor reductions can cause budget issues.   Passenger rail offers no comparable net increase in revenues and in all likely hood a net loss.  So Passenger rail risks reducing revenues and increasing tax obligations for no significant greater good.

Add to that details from a report released in February 2010 on the potential plans to pay for adding the benefit of commuter rail here


[A] business improvement assessment" of $1.02 per $1,000, on top of existing local and statewide property taxes, could be levied on all properties in a mile-wide corridor along the track, a half-mile on each side.

Then there’s “a vehicle registration fee [which] "has actually been a pretty common approach across the country. You basically tax what you want people to avoid, if you will," Williams said He said that with 528,273 vehicles in the 27 communities in the region, a $15.82 charge would be needed to raise $8.3 million.

They could also choose “…to add a 16 cents per $1,000 property tax surcharge on all properties in 27 communities in the Nashua-Manchester areas.”

 …and the cost figures in the UL editorial, you would think, should put the issue in its grave.
If only we could be so lucky.
Rail, like gambling, is one of those issues that like slasher film serial killers just never dies no matter how many times you think you’ve killed it.    While the costs are clearly excessive, and demonstrate no potential benefit to the state, you can probably bet your unemployment check that next session we’ll be forced to deal with yet another raft of bills to give New Hampshire something it does not need, that costs more than the current circumstances–Commuter rail.
Cross Posted From NH Insider