NHRRA - New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association

New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association

Rail options ignored in I-93 widening plans
By John Milne
The Eagle Tribune
November 1, 2006


The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission holds a meeting tomorrow night in Bedford to plan for the disruption caused by the widening project for Interstate 93.

There may be more disruption than they expect.
The Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental group, yesterday charged state and federal officials with repeatedly violating or ignoring highway and environmental laws. CLF filed a motion for summary judgment in U.S. District Court on Oct. 17. If granted, it would require new environmental studies and stretch out the timetable for widening the Interstate from Manchester south to the state line.

CLF's recitation of "undisputed facts" the state doesn't contest tells a story of myopia, manipulation and mendacity. The state cooked the regulatory books, CLF says, planning a highway that won't lower traffic congestion over the next two decades. The $500 million budgeted for the project will, CLF suggests, be wasted.

State and federal officials must reply by the middle of this month. The schedule calls for Judge Paul R. Barbadoro to hold hearings early next year.

CLF charged the state Department of Transportation with deliberately ignoring the addition of commuter rail lines - there's an existing, unused rail right-of-way from Manchester to Lawrence - to lower highway congestion. The rail option could cost another $110 million.

"It's clear to us that there was a rush to judgment in this case," said Thomas Irwin, a lawyer in CLF's Concord office. "It was going to be a highway project and only a highway project." State highway builders were under intense political pressure, he said.

This would be another episode of New Hampshire's comic incompetence if it were not for the need for an intelligent infrastructure to shape southern tier growth. New Hampshire is betting its economic future on low prices, low taxes and easy access. If CLF is right, the "access" part is mostly a bluff.

The undisputed-facts list says federal regulators went along with state shenanigans, accepting promises to study new issues. The result: Environmental and highway laws were violated, CLF alleges. Examples:

* The Department of Transportation rejected commuter rail before investigating whether such a rail line would be feasible. They ignored Environmental Protection Agency demands that "concrete steps need to be taken to assure that rail is part of the long term mix of transportation measures utilized in the region served by I-93."

When the state finally did a rail study, parking in Boston was assumed to cost $5 a day and commuting costs were 20 cents a mile. Right: The real cost is about $30 a day to park, and the IRS costs out car expense at nearly 45 cents a mile.

* New Hampshire defined the project as from Manchester to the Massachusetts border - not the more logical Route 213 interchange a mile or so further south. Thus New Hampshire skipped out of a two-state regulatory process, limiting the air and water pollution calculations that would have been needed. DOT ignored plans to widen I-93 between the state line and Andover, Mass. Yet New Hampshire promised federal officials there would be coordination, CLF said.

* The Transportation Department persuaded Bill Bartlett, a former Senate president from Kingston, to give the Fish and Game Department's endorsement to the highway plan despite staff scientists' concerns about the damage to wildlife.

Southern tier politicians have often accepted the department's false choice of either rail or a wider highway. "We are not saying that rail alone will solve the problems," Irwin said. "We need a highway solution, as well."

I worked in New Hampshire for a Massachusetts newspaper for a couple of decades. I used all the options. I drove, I car-pooled, I rode the bus. I know how an accident can add hours to a commute. I've been on that interstate on a snowy Friday night and gotten home close to midnight.

There's no alternative to a wider highway. But high-speed rail must be a part of New Hampshire's growth plan.
The election is next week. The one race where highways matter is the Executive Council. These five politicians have clout over highway construction and can insist that the department be honest with commuters and taxpayers.

Republican Chuck Morse and Democrat Beverly Hollingworth are campaigning for the open seat representing the Seacoast and southern tier. They need to address the issues the CLF motion raises.

John Milne is a veteran New Hampshire political reporter and analyst. Reach him at jmilne@mcttelecom.com.

This article was published in The Eagle Tribune of North Andover, MA, all rights reserved. Used with permission.