Commuter Rail push in NH ignores what tourists actually need

The NH Rail to Nowhere...

By Steve MacDonald

Today, in a letter to the editor of New Hampshire Business Review, Peter J. Griffin, the NH Railroad Revitalization Association President, considers what at first appears to be a rhetorical question. “How will tourists get to New Hampshire?” How is this a problem?

Mr. Griffin bemoans the loss of days past when public transportation (trains) brought “tourists” into the Granite State:

I wanted to get to New Hampshire. I could not because there were little or no public transportation connections to New Hampshire tourist destinations, so I took the train to Rockport, Mass.- where I spent money.

That is how it remains. There is not a tourist destination in NH accessible from the Boston area by public transportation.

Not to belittle the larger point but how did New Hampshire manage to report 38.4 million tourist visits and $5.4 Billion dollars in revenue in 2015 without public transportation?

Public transportation, love it or not, has limits and while Mr. Griffin’s nostalgia is admirable and appreciated it ignores the reality then and now.

In the 1930’s there were two very distinct differences which weigh heavily on his point. The prevalence and affordability of personal transportation and the infrastructure.

Eighty-five years ago the average American couldn’t afford a car. If they could afford a car then driving it someplace required well-maintained roads built for such traffic. If there was no road, you either walked or didn’t go. If you wanted people to come to you, what was the easiest, cheapest way to get them there? Build a road.

As more people could afford cars, they needed more roads to more places. Places rail would never try to go because while rail always needed roads, roads don’t need rail.

New Hampshire’s tourism numbers prove that.

Between 2011 and 2015 tourist visits to New Hampshire rose from 34 million a year to 38.4 Million. Revenue estimates increased from somewhere just north of $4 Billion to $5.361 Billion; all in a slow to no growth post-recession economy, without commuter rail.

Cars and roads changed the way tourists get to the places to spend their money. A circumstance that even the most ardent supporter or rail must admit will not be solved by extending tracks northward.

You can’t run rail to every ski slope, leaf peeping point, or Sugar House. At some point, people are going to need to get a car to get from point B where the train ends to points C, D, and E where the dollars get spent. If we’re talking about tourists from Boston, which is less than an hour from the border, why would you shun your own vehicle and pay to take a (hopefully crowded) train to Nashua (or even Manchester or Concord) to then pay to rent another car to continue the quest?

And if they spend more money getting here won’t they have less money to spend when they arrive?

The other elephant in this room is the cost of commuter rail. No data suggests or expects it to attract enough riders to pay for itself. The added cost to maintain it will come out of the pockets of New Hampshire businesses and taxpayers. That creates a net loss of both current tourism growth and revenue drained to support that rail system.

Commuter rail is a vanity issue. It’s elective surgery rail advocates are expecting someone else to pay for, forever. And not even new “developments” across the border in Massachusetts will change that:

There is massive new residential construction happening is Boston.

Many of the new complexes are cutting back on parking because of the availability of transportation options in the city.

So how does one get to a New Hampshire tourist destination? You can rent a car. However, if all this additional traffic is put on New Hampshire roads does getting to a tourist destination become so intolerable that people will stop coming?

The second reason is a problem that so many of the tourists coming into Boston are from countries that have spent billions on public transportation. Many of these people do not even own a car. How does one attract these tourists?

In this decade the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has admitted that the cost to maintain major highways like I-93 would continue to be less expensive per mile than Commuter rail.

According to the state Department of Transportation, I-93 costs roughly $10,000 per lane per mile to maintain. At four lanes, I-93 between Concord and the border would cost about $1.6 million a year. After the Manchester to Massachusetts widening, it would be about $2.6 million a year — roughly half of Burling’s lowest estimate for operating the train. Double the I-93 maintenance figure, just to be safe, and we’re still at the low estimate for the state’s portion of operating a train.

As for foreigners used to public transportation, cultural appropriation of America’s fascination with the automobile has never been an issue. We love our cars. They represent freedom, individuality, independence, and choice. They are not tied to train schedules or a handful of rail destinations. And given a choice, a majority of tourists will not just choose cars; they will need them to get to the places where they’d like to spend their dollars.

Conclusion?

The numbers suggest that traffic has been no barrier to tourism. The lack of trains certainly isn’t. So stop wasting tax money on rail studies, committees, commissions, or legislation trying to give tourists what you want and spend the dollars, time, and attention to giving them what they want and need. Roads and Bridges.

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