US: Debt Crises in American Commuter Rails

American states’ rail projects suffer severe cost and debt management crises.Jane Aitken reviews several state rail projects and warns against further biggest financial boondoggle especially in New Hampshire

My recent interest in commuter rail was sparked when I read an article calling out Democrats for no longer siding with the little people. In the days since, I have been writing to the House of Representatives and Governor to consider the implications of SB 241, a bill that would extend the MBTA into NH. In response to the rail proponents’ poll claiming wide support, there is currently an online petition to gather the names of those across NH who are opposed. Most had no idea it was being considered.

While researching the background of how our state could have gotten so deeply involved in rail, I started to notice a pattern. All the failed rail projects I was reading about seemed to have one thing in common — they were started by Democrat governors. In at least three instances, Republican governors were able to undo the damage.

Other states haven’t been so lucky. It seems that once a state invests (i. e., squanders) federal money on rail, it’s impossible to stop it and state taxpayers have to dig deep. Ask Maine and New Mexico about that.

The Champlain Flyer was a pet project of Vermont Democrat Howard Dean. After barely two years of bleeding Vermont taxpayers, it was mercifully shut down by Republican Governor Jim Douglas.

The Rail Runner in New Mexico was foisted on the state by Bill Richardson. He left the state hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and he was later accused of campaign funding shenanigans with executives of companies that made fortunes from the boondoggle. The NM Legislature even asked their DOT to look into selling it but they couldn’t find anybody to buy it.

The largest rail fiasco in American history was enthusiastically pushed by Democrat Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown of California. The project has failed so badly, the federal government is now demanding California pay back almost a billion dollars of federal funds.

Wisconsin and Ohio both had expensive High Speed Rail proposals at one time and they were pushed by Democrat governors Jim Doyle and Ted Strickland. Both Democrats were defeated by Republicans Scott Walker (who ran on an anti-rail platform) and John Kasich. When they took office, they both rejected Obama High Speed Rail money, because both of them knew rail would burden their states with huge and everlasting debt. Ironically, that is the same money the federal government now wants back because California wasted it.

In addition to Vermont, Wisconsin and Ohio, add Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Philly — that’s just a partial list of systems that are in debt.

You couldn’t make this stuff up! Rail is as partisan as it gets in politics. New Hampshire is now following suit. The latest rail bill (SB 241) was passed in the Senate on strict party lines, 14-10. The House Public Works committee’s OTP recommendation was also made strictly along party lines. The House of Representatives will vote on the bill on June 5th.

The DOT’s own Capitol Corridor Rail Study, as pointed out in a recent Union Leader article, proves that this train would not have enough ridership and thus would have “little if any discernible impact on highway traffic congestion”, and “might not reduce commute times”. To cover the costs, it recommended “several new taxes and fees”. Another drawback is it would have to (artificially) create riders by creating “more density near any train station”. The only conclusion one could come to is that it is just not worth it.

If rail comes to pass in this state, it will have to be funded with some kind of broad-based tax. There is no other way. If rail comes to pass in NH, Democrats will own it.

I hope Governor Sununu learns from these examples. If he’s smart — and I know he is — he will veto any and all attempts by New Hampshire Democrats to force money-losing commuter rail on New Hampshire taxpayers. Our Republican Governor should not allow his good name, his reputation, or his fingerprints to be implicated in a project that will do so little good and so much harm to New Hampshire.

Commuter rail would be the biggest financial boondoggle in our state’s history. Taxpayers would be on the hook for it for years, again and again and again. If the House passes SB 241 on June 5th, the only recourse is to ask the Governor to VETO the bill. If he doesn’t, he will have broken with his party and this boondoggle will be part of his legacy.

*Jane Aitken is a 30-year resident of NH and currently Vice Chair of the Coalition of NH Taxpayers.

Source-Patch Media 

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