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Kuster hopes ‘Railroads Act’ will help bring passenger rail to Nashua

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Nashua, N.H., February 25, 2020 | BY DEAN SHALHOUP
NASHUA – With some 35,000 commuters jamming Greater Nashua roads and turnpikes each business day, finding a way to expand passenger rail service into New Hampshire has become a top priority, the head of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission said Monday.

“We’ve been heavily involved for years in working with state and federal (officials) to bring rail back to this region, and we’re also involved with freight planning,” commission Executive Director Jay Minkarah told roughly 40 local, state and federal officeholders and rail executives who gathered for the unveiling of a new rail-funding initiative announced Monday by U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., of the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

Called the “Invest in American Railroads Act,” the legislation, sponsored by Kuster, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. of the 1st Congressional District and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., “cuts through the red tape” to allow states to secure low-interest loans from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation for rail projects.

The loans, which Kuster said have an interest rate below 2% with terms that can be extended beyond the usual 35 years to as long as 50 years, could benefit rail initiatives in New Hampshire, especially the southern part of the state, in a huge way.

The funding, for instance, could help the state pay for the long-discussed Capitol Corridor Project, which would connect Concord, Manchester and Nashua to Boston via commuter rail.

If the Concord to Boston connection is made, commuter trains would have two stops in Nashua – at the end of Crown Street, and a location in the south end of the city yet to be identified, said Patrick Herlihy, director of Aeronautics, Rail and Transit.

Manchester would also have two stops, one near the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and the other in the downtown area. According to a preliminary estimate, commuter trains would make 16 daily round trips, Herlihy said.

The legislation – House Resolution 5947 – “makes critical improvements to the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program (RRIF), which was created in 1998 to promote the development of passenger rail and so-called “short line railroads,” according to Kuster.

The problem with the program, Kuster said Monday, is that the U.S. DOT, concerned that borrowers would default on the loan, levied a “credit risk premium” that could run as high as 18% of the loan principal.

In many cases, Kuster said, borrowers weren’t told what that premium would be until after they had “invested heavily” in fees, compliance costs and undergone a lengthy review process.

Would-be borrowers, Kuster said, shied away from applying for a RRIF loan, which became evident in the fact that only $8.2 billion of the $35 billion available funding had been sought.

The Invest in American Railroads Act, Kuster said, solves that problem by “setting aside $100 million in credit risk premiums” for passenger rail projects.

Kuster on Monday predicted passenger rail would be “a gamechanger” for New Hampshire’s economy, and called it “a win-win” for commuters and their families by keeping them “from spending hours sitting in traffic.”

Pappas, meanwhile, said the act will improve loan programs such as the RRIF, making it easier for the state to “undertake ambitious rail projects” aimed at “improving our regional economies” and “creating good-paying jobs.”