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Could commuter rail help coronavirus recovery?

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This past week Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) introduced a bill to make it easier for businesses and communities to get loans to build commuter rail.   

Hassan is touting the proposal as an opportunity for economic growth after the coronavirus.  Skeptics aren’t sure commuter rail can ever be profitable. 

About Hassan’s proposal 

According to a press release from Hassan’s office, the Railroad Rehabilitation and Financing Innovation Act would streamline the application process for an existing loan program.   

The Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan program was created to help develop passenger and short-line railroad, but the program has only granted a few loans over the past few years.  This is partly due to a lengthy and costly application process. 

A revised application process could help Nashua and nearby businesses fund a commuter rail connecting Massachusetts, Nashua, Manchester, and potentially ConcordThe state has been considering a “Capitol Corridor” rail project for years. 

Could passenger rail help stimulate the economy? 

Sen. Hassan believes that passenger rail investment could help stimulate the economy. 

“As communities consider steps to promote economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, this bipartisan legislation looks ahead to strengthen funding opportunities for passenger rail,” said Hassan. “Passenger rail can provide a significant economic boost to Granite State communities, and as Congress considers future transportation and infrastructure packages, it should prioritize passenger rail efforts.” 

Policymakers have often argued that infrastructure investments are a good way to kickstart the economy after a recession.  An analysis of stimulus spending after the 2009 financial crisis concluded that every $1 of infrastructure spending resulted in $1.57 of economic growth. 

A commuter rail in New Hampshire would also increase opportunities to commute to and from Boston.  This would likely increase residential development and attract workforce to the Granite State. 

Is passenger rail a bad investment? 

Commuter rail opponents in New Hampshire argue that rail would cost more to build and maintain than it would create in revenue.  The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and National Railroad Passenger Corporation have both faced financial problems. 

People will also probably avoid public transportation for a long time following the coronavirus outbreak. 

Many commuter rails – including the Amtrak Downeaster on the Seacoast – stopped all activity during the state of emergency.  The CARES Act included extensive funding to keep Amtrak and other rail afloat. 

There are many other opportunities to invest in transportation infrastructure, from expanding rural bus service to repairing bridges.   

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