The case for commuter rail in N.H. got worse, not better, in the last seven years
The case for taxpayer-subsidized commuter rail from Manchester to Boston has grown weaker, not stronger, in the seven years since the state released its major study of the proposed Capitol Corridor project.
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s December, 2014, report on the Capitol Corridor project projected that a commuter rail line from Manchester to Boston would attract 3,120 riders per weekday. It predicted also that demand for commuter rail would grow as highway traffic increased in the coming years.
In November of 2021, the department released an updated analysis of the Capitol Corridor project. It projects a peak ridership of 2,866 passengers per weekday, which is an 8% decline from the 2014 report.
That 8% decline in ridership occurs even as the number of trips per day to Manchester doubled, going from 16 in the original report to 32 in the 2021 update.
Making matters worse, as ridership falls, costs rise.
The 2021 presentation noted that the price tag for the rail line would be higher than originally estimated due to inflation and the need for additional infrastructure beyond what was originally planned.
The 2014 report estimated $246.5 million in capital costs, plus $10.8 million in annual operating costs. Both of those costs are expected to be significantly higher.
Adjusted for inflation alone, the 2014 cost projections would come to $292.7 million for capital expenditures and $12.8 million for annual operating expenses.
In sum, if the Capitol Corridor project were to proceed, New Hampshire taxpayers would pay millions more dollars to transport thousands fewer people.
Where would the money come from? The DOT’s 2021 analysis includes a breakdown of non-federal funding sources for other U.S. commuter rail operations. The largest sources of revenue are sales taxes.
The DOT projects that, if New Hampshire’s commuter rail were funded in the same way other similar operations are funded, the largest source of non-federal revenue would be a “transit sales tax” at 33%, followed by a “city/local sales tax” at 18%, a “state transportation tax” at 12%, “state other” contribution at 11%, and state “GO bonds” at 8%.
Without a sales tax, it is unclear how New Hampshire could possibly fund the construction and operation of a commuter rail line.
As the math for the Capitol Corridor project grows worse, viable alternatives to commuter rail are expected to enter the market within just a few years, possibly before any rail project could even break ground:
- At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, automakers announced aggressive timelines for the release of autonomous vehicles. General Motors announced it planned to make an autonomous vehicle available for the consumer market by the middle of this decade. Volvo announced that its autonomous driving system would be made available as soon as it clears safety reviews in California.
- Mobileye, an autonomous vehicle company owned by Intel, announced that it has teamed with China’s largest automaker to put an autonomous vehicle on the market in that country by 2024.
- Dirverless taxis are already in use in Phoenix, Ariz., and San Francisco. The company that developed them, Alphabet-owned Waymo, announced in late December that it will release a self-driving car specifically for the ride sharing market, so you’ll be able to order a driverless car from Uber or Lyft.
- And, to demonstrate advancements in self-driving technology, companies are already showing off autonomous race cars that compete at speeds up to 175 miles per hour.
The automobile industry is at the beginning of an autonomous vehicle revolution. It’s a safe bet that by the time any Manchester-Boston commuter rail line is completed and operational, autonomous vehicles will be available on the consumer market.
Once the technology becomes advanced enough to allow large-scale consumer adoption, Granite Staters will have the option of taking a self-driving vehicle from their front door directly to the front door of a Boston office, restaurant, theater, ballpark or medical facility. This represents a tremendous advancement over rail, which requires obtaining transportation to a train station, taking the train along a fixed route to another station, then catching another form of transportation to one’s final destination.
Perhaps the ultimate advantage of autonomous vehicles is that they will be made available to consumers (including as taxis and ride share vehicles, and eventually vans and buses) without the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new transportation system and the annual expenditure of millions more to run it.
Self-driving vehicles offer all the commuting benefits of a passenger train — the ability to work, read, or relax on the trip, rather than drive — without the taxpayer expense. Once they become widely available, the already shrinking demand for commuter rail is likely to collapse.
From an investment standpoint, it makes no sense at this moment in history to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate an increasingly obsolete, 19th-century mode of passenger transport.