February 17, 2020
Business

Legislation would add fee to train tickets sold in N.H.

AUGUSTA – Unable to persuade some of their counterparts elsewhere to subsidize passenger train service from Boston to Portland, Maine lawmakers are considering a surcharge on Downeaster tickets sold in New Hampshire.

The fees would be combined with voluntary subsidy payments from Maine.

“New Hampshire hopefully will be a partner – willingly or not,” said Rep. Boyd Marley, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and sponsor of a bill proposing the surcharge.

The decision to use legislation to push New Hampshire to contribute to the Downeaster comes as the two states negotiate payments for upgrading the 3-year-old train line.

Marley’s bill does not specify an amount or when the surcharge would start.

New Hampshire never has contributed to the Downeaster, and Maine is urging the state to pledge $1.2 million in federal money to track improvements that would increase revenues and add a fifth round-trip between Portland and Boston.

Carol Murray, New Hampshire’s transportation commissioner, pointed out that a constitutional amendment forbids the state from using highway gas tax dollars to pay for rail systems.

“The issue of where do you even get the funding has been long-standing,” she said.

The two states will meet on the $1.2 million request this winter, though a final decision will be made by members of New Hampshire’s Executive Council.

On Tuesday, the Maine House of Representatives referred Marley’s bill to the Transportation Committee, which will discuss legal limitations to the Legislature requiring the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to assess a surcharge in New Hampshire.

Murray said she spoke last week with Maine Transportation Commissioner David Cole, but the topic of a surcharge didn’t come up.

Riders should not be penalized for lawmakers’ decisions not to contribute money, said Murray, who also questioned the legality of one state legislating a surcharge on another.

“The key to seamless transportation is cooperation among the states, not states penalizing or surcharging other states,” she said. However, Murray sympathized with Maine’s situation.

“It’s fair to say, and it’s probably been brought up by Maine that New Hampshire got a lot of infrastructure improvement as a result of the Downeaster at Maine’s expense,” she said.

At least one executive councilor doesn’t look favorably on Maine’s surcharge proposal. Councilor Ruth Griffin was unaware of Maine’s surcharge proposal until Wednesday, but speculated it could be a tactic for producing a favorable vote on the $1.2 million.

“They’re doing this just to put some pressure on the governor and council and the Department of Transportation to fund the $1.2 million,” she said. “If this is the strategy Maine is using, I will watch it very closely.”

Gov.-elect John Lynch, who was to be sworn today, would “have to review what’s being proposed” before taking a position on the surcharge, said spokeswoman Pamela Walsh.

The passenger rail authority also plans to consider a proposal this month that would increase some of the rates in New Hampshire, while keeping them the same in Maine, even if Marley’s bill goes nowhere.

Patricia Douglas of the authority said the rate increase would help the Downeaster keep up with cost of operations by raising fares at some of its fastest growing stations.

Ridership on the Downeaster, which makes stops in communities such as Durham and Exeter, N.H., is declining in Maine and increasing in New Hampshire.

What’s at Stake

New Hampshire never has contributed to the Downeaster, and Maine is urging the state to pledge $1.2 million in federal money to track improvements that would increase revenues and add a fifth round-trip between Portland and Boston.


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