High speed rail study in jeopardy

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(Host) Plans to study high-speed rail service from Boston to Montreal are in jeopardy.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, one of three states participating in the study is having a hard time paying its share of the cost.

(Zind) Three years ago the federal government designated the Boston to Montreal route as one of the nation’s High Speed Rail Corridors and authorized a study of the 325 mile route from Massachusetts through New Hampshire and Vermont.

Earlier this year, the first Phase One of the study was finished. That involved an inventory of the existing track and a survey of potential ridership.

Phase Two was scheduled to begin this fall. It would get down to the nitty gritty of how much the new service would cost. Scott Bascom is with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

(Bascom) That’s the big question that of course everyone asks: what’s it going to cost to build it, and what would it cost to run it.

(Zind) Bascom says together the three states are supposed to pay for half of Phase Two. Massachusetts and Vermont have agreed to their shares, but New Hampshire has not – and that’s holding things up.

(Murray) It really is unfortunate to have to say to the other states that are involved in the high speed rail study, sorry but we can’t go forward, but right now we’re just not in a position to be able to.

(Zind) New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray says a lawsuit is preventing the state from funding the study. Both Vermont and New Hampshire want to pay a large part of their $83,000 share using highway funds. But Murray says the New Hampshire Constitution forbids using highway funds for anything but roads. She says the state hopes to convince the New Hampshire Supreme Court that improving rail service will benefit the highway system by cutting down on congestion. The court decision isn’t expected until spring. If the state loses, it will have to ask the legislature for money that will be hard to get, because of the state’s fiscal crisis.

(Murray) We don’t have the general fund dollars in our budget to provide the match for the high speed rail study, so we’re really on pins and needles until the Supreme Court makes a decision.

(Zind) Scott Bascom says a delay wouldn’t be a big setback – but he’s worried that if New Hampshire’s problems aren’t resolved, it could mean an end to the prospects for high speed rail in Vermont.

(Bascom) Gosh, I hope not. It would be a shame if it fell apart this early on. At the end of this phase two, essentially we’ll have enough information for decision makers to decide whether it makes sense or not.

(Zind) Bascom says the study couldn’t continue without New Hampshire’s participation because much of the proposed route there is state owned. For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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