Passenger Rail a Boondoggle for New Hampshire Taxpayers
by Rep. John Hikel

As a candidate for State Representative, I joined many who were elected in promising to be more careful with taxpayer money than our predecessors, who managed to grow government by 25 percent in just four years. As a legislature, we have taken numerous steps to ensure that we watch every tax dollar that the state will spend to make sure it is delivering value.

For this reason, it is critical that we abolish the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority (NHRTA) before it can saddle state taxpayers with millions in new burdens each year.

This government bureaucracy was established with the goal of bringing passenger rail service to New Hampshire. While a noble goal, the fact remains that passenger rail is simply not economical. Every rail service provider across the country, from Amtrak to the MBTA in Massachusetts, requires major taxpayer subsidies to exist, or they would go broke.

What’s even more disturbing is the fact that prior legislatures gave the NHRTA the authority to issue bonds, paid for by tax dollars. This means that this group of unelected officials can spend your money and not be held accountable for their actions.

Now, we need to consider that the NHRTA needs $280 million for infrastructure improvements to bring rail service here and is expected to run at a loss, and therefore require a subsidy, of between $8-12 million annually. Between the bond payments and the operation costs, that means that the average family could get stuck with a bill of $50 or more each year to pay for the luxury of having train service to Boston. This is despite the fact that the same cities that would get rail already have bus service to the places where the train would go.

Experience has shown over and over again that bus service is the most economical way of moving passengers from place to place. Train service is just not competitive over the same routes, and has shown no ability to become more viable financially.

Having train service would be great, if it didn’t require a major and ongoing cost to New Hampshire’s taxpayers. However, we are repeatedly told by the NHRTA that the benefits to rail service are so great that our citizens would be willing to foot the tab for its upfront and operating costs. Clearly, they aren’t speaking to my constituents.

The people I represent tell me repeatedly that they want smaller government that respects the people who pay the bills and that we need to tighten our belts to do more with less. The last thing they want is a big government program with an ongoing cost. I suspect that the majority of the state’s taxpayers feel the same way.

This message just isn’t getting through to train aficionados of the NHRTA.

One of the most humorous arguments by the NHRTA members is that they should start moving forward with a $4.1 million federal planning grant, and that the legislature shouldn’t worry, because “it doesn’t cost anything.” The idea that federal money isn’t taxpayer money would be hilarious, if it weren’t so pathetic. Wasting federal tax dollars because they don’t cost any state funds is among the most shortsighted concepts I’ve ever heard, and it shows a near complete disconnection to real people who have to work hard every day to pay for the bite that Uncle Sam takes out of our wallets.

Furthermore, the only purpose to receive this federal taxpayer money would be to develop a plan to bring rail service that would end up costing state taxpayers millions each year. That’s like the “check” many people get in their junk mail, which if you cash it, automatically enrolls you in a program that costs vastly more than you ever wanted.

At a time when we are facing an historic budget shortfall, the last thing we should be doing is looking to add any more obligations to state taxpayers. We need government to stop the frivolous spending of our money and put an end to the “white whale” projects like passenger rail. It’s time we had a state government that respects the folks who pay the freight.

For these reasons, the House Transportation committee is moving forward to eliminate the boondoggle that is the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority before it can cost state taxpayers millions of dollars. It’s time for the adults to stand up for responsible and accountable government.

Rep. John Hikel, of Goffstown, is the Vice Chairman of the House Transportation Committee.