Today I spent part of the day playing phone tag and voice mailbox with Director Jack Ferns of New Hampshire Department of Transportation. Director Ferns is the head of Aeronautics but he also has authority over the Bureau of Railroads as well. I'm concerned about the proposed $10 million dollar funding for the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad through northern New Hampshire. I'm concerned that this railroad has very few customers and revenue capability in New Hampshire and if this is a good investment.
I'm still working on my ideas, apparantly, Mr. Ferns was in meetings in Manchester. Below are some of the dynamics of this whole idea.
Executive Councilor Ray Burton supports spending over ten million dollars on a railroad line through northern New Hampshire. The question is why?
Originally constructed in 1859 the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad runs from St. Roaslie, Quebec through the Groveton and Berlin-Gorham areas before heading south towards the Maine seacoast. Once a strategic link between Canada and the ice free Atlantic, the St. Lawrence & Atlantic known as the SLR gradually fell into a decline and today resembles the economy in Coos County.
"This project is critical for all current and future industry in the North Country that could use rail freight services." Burton said. But whether a ten million dollar taxpayer investment can support this idea is a question that remains. During the past two years the economy in Coos County has been decimated paper mill closures in Berlin, Groveton and now Gorham have thrown over 750 people out of work and killed the only major customer and revenue source for the SLR in New Hampshire. The SLR is owned by the publically traded Genesee & Wyoming who claims that this public-private partnership will be a long term asset to Coos County and New Hampshire.
"This project will also directly help attract future rail-served industry to sites along the main line in Coos County, helping us bring new industrial private sector jobs to the area." said Jerry E. Vest vice president of the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad. Mr. Vest said that this railroad could not afford to do this project on its own. According to its own annual report in 2008 the Genesee & Wyoming completed 5 major acquisitions of railroads for $370 million in addition to receiving tax credits from the TARP program created by the U.S. Congress. And the railroad still needs another ten million from New Hampshire taxpayers. I asked Mr. Vest to explain what industries in northern New Hampshire would be served and exactly how many jobs would be created. He didn't answer.
Why is Councilor Burton supporting this project? Is investing ten million dollars in a railroad line that rolls past closed paper mills and effective use of taxpayer capital and good transportation policy? I don't think it is. I think career and experienced politicians like Councilor Ray Burton are supporting any project or idea that could bring needed capital and resources into a beleaguered Coos County and this is wrong. If the paper mills had remained opened this might have been an argument for this project but they didn't. Coos County is sliding downhill and investing ten million dollars in a railroad isn't going to change this or even alter the direction.