One of the bills that the New Hampshire legislature is slated to vote on in this week’s marathon session is HB 218, which would repeal the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority (NHRTA), a body established in 2007 to oversee research and development of a passenger rail system in NH. The NHRTA has recently received two federal grants to perform an 18-month study and hand down a recommendation.

The bill to repeal the NHRTA is sponsored by Republican State Reps. Dan McGuire, Jon Richardson, Daniel Itse, Gregory Sorg, and Mark Warden, and supported by a group of Republican legislators who believe that since the state cannot afford to devote funds to rail, devoting funds to the study of it is pointless.

Some NH business community leaders, however, are taking another point of view. They argue that the development of commuter rail could benefit NH’s businesses and economy, and that the NHRTA at least deserves the chance to perform their study and release the findings. NH Journal spoke to Greater Manchester Chamber Commerce Vice President of Economic Development and Advocacy Mike Skelton, who said he agreed with legislators that there will eventually need to be a serious debate about the feasibility of investing in commuter rail, but added, “Before that debate occurs, however, policymakers need to have all the facts. The existence of the rail authority is an integral part of ensuring policymakers have those facts.”

Manchester Chamber President Robin Comstock and Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams make the case against repeal in an op-ed in today’s print edition of the Union Leader, claiming that passing HB 218 would “short-circuit” the research process, and would anger the business community since the state matching funds required for the federal grant were paid in part by voluntary contributions from individual business owners. A priority of the NHRTA has been exploring the possibility of a rail line along the “Capitol Corridor” between Manchester, Concord, and Nashua.

“The business community stepped up to the plate two years ago and raised over $120,000 in private contributions to fund the rail authority’s application to secure these federal rail grants,” said Skelton, “Its important that the State honor the contributions of these businesses by allowing the work of the rail authority to continue, otherwise the business community may not be so eager to fund future public private partnerships.”

Skelton and his fellow Chamber executives also argue that while the discussion about funding actual rail development is a legitimate one that will need to take place following the release of NHRTA study results, the group itself carries no cost to the taxpayers. The NHRTA has no operating budget from the state and is staffed by 28 volunteers, and the $4 million in federal grants they secured will require some state matching funds, but existing state funds have already been allocated to serve as matching funds as part of the 2008 state budget.

Finally, Skelton stresses that any recommendations handed down by the NHRTA at the conclusion of their study period would need to be implemented by the legislature, so there is no peril of taxpayer funds being committed to the project without explicit legislative approval. “The cards really are in the legislature’s hands,” he says.