It’s a deal only Lyle Lanley could love.
Lanley, as fans of The Simpsons know, was the smooth-talking song-and-dance man who took the townsfolk of Springfield for millions with a bogus monorail scheme. (“Well, sir, there’s nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail.”)
There was never any demonstrated need for a monorail, and there were better things to spend the money on. But as Bart told Marge after Lyle worked his magic on the crowd, “Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken.”
And so it is in New Hampshire where, despite years of studies reinforcing the same findings, leading Democrats like state Sen. Donna Soucy and House Democratic leader Rep. Matt Wilhelm, both of Manchester, continue championing the choo-choo project. U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster joined Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington and Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess last month in a joint op-ed urging New Hampshire to jump on the Manchester-Nashua-Boston commuter rail bandwagon.
In 2021, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg came to Manchester to make his pitch for the project, too. “Whatever we can do to simplify the ability of people and goods to move where they need to be, we should be doing it. Commuter rail can be a big, big part of that,” Buttigieg told NHPR.
What Mayor Pete didn’t tell anyone during his visit — nor is it mentioned in the Kuster op-ed or the Democrats’ speeches from the State House floor — is how much the commuter rail project would cost.
Now we have an updated answer, thanks to a new report from the New Hampshire DOT: Approximately $800 million to build it, and about $17 million more each year to operate it.
Except, it won’t cost $800 million. It will cost far more. How do we know? Because large transportation projects always cost more. Boston’s Big Dig started with a price tag of $3 billion. It has cost more than $23 billion (and counting), and it was so poorly constructed it killed someone the first year it was fully open.
California’s super-sexy high-speed rail project was supposed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of 200 mph for just $33 billion. Now it’s a $113 billion-plus boondoggle that sends trains at a traditional speed between two mid-sized cities.
Is New Hampshire somehow different? As the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy noted, the New Hampshire DOT’s construction cost estimate has jumped 250 percent since the 2014 study. With Biden administration rules mandating (above market) union wages and (more expensive) U.S. manufactured construction supplies, does anyone seriously expect this number to go anywhere but up?
And for what? To get a few hundred commuters from Manchester to Boston in an hour and a half–each way? How many Granite Staters want a three-hour round trip to Boston’s South Station? What do they do once they get there? Catch the T or pay for an Uber? Speaking of which — how did they get to the new taxpayer-funded $51 million Manchester train station in the first place?
Ask yourself: Would you spend three hours a day taking a trip to someplace near where you want to go, sitting with strangers you don’t know, at a cost of (at least) $20 a day? Answer: Of course not.
Which is why the ridership estimates in the DOT’s Capitol Corridor report, as unimpressive as they are, still overestimate the real numbers. Besides, we don’t need estimates. We know what’s happening on commuter rail across the country. Ridership is down. Fewer people are commuting to work, more are working from home.
And even before COVID, Granite Staters were rail averse. Just look at ridership on the state’s current commuter train, Amtrak’s Downeaster. It takes commuters straight into Boston every day from three stops along the Seacoast. Before the pandemic, it barely averaged 200 Granite State commuters a day.
Nationwide, Amtrak ridership is still well below pre-COVID levels, and it reported an adjusted operating loss of $885 million last year. Is this an industry Granite Staters really want to invest in?
Commuter rail supporters point to polls that show Granite Staters overwhelmingly support the idea of commuter rail. Of course, they do. It’s easy to support the idea of choo-choo trains. It’s the cold, hard fiscal reality that is tough to take. Building the Capital Corridor would cost a minimum of a billion dollars and would take years to complete. During those same years, more Granite Staters will be buying electric vehicles, working remotely, shifting to four-day workweeks, and rising in autonomous transportation.
If we’re lucky, New Hampshire’s billion-dollar train will be finished just in time to be obsolete.