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Will the Trains Reach NH?

Published Monday Jan 26, 2009


New Hampshire is poised to get on board with a new commuter rail system into Nashua and Manchester. The proposed commuter rail, known as the NH Capitol Corridor Project, would connect train service from the Lowell Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) station to Nashua, with additional proposed stops in Merrimack, Bedford and Manchester. The project has gained steam recently, thanks to support at the state level as well as from private interest groups. Economic factors, such as high gas prices in 2007 and 2008 and rising unemployment, as well as President-Elect Barack Obama's national infrastructure proposal have also contributed to interest in the rail system.

Although the Obama administration has pledged additional funds for state infrastructure in a separate stimulus package, the proposed rail line will not likely qualify for these funds, says Bill Boynton, the public information officer for the NH Department of Transportation (DOT). Boynton notes that the sorts of projects that will receive these funds are ones that have been put on the shelf due to lack of funds, but are otherwise ready to go.

Rail is out there, and we're looking forward to it, but there are financial and physical obstacles, he says, noting that passenger rail service was not included in the DOT's 10-year transportation plan submitted in mid-2008.

However, the state has recently taken steps to make the commuter rail a viable transportation option in NH. In 2007, Gov. John Lynch created the NH Rail Transit Authority. Since then, the Transit Authority has elected a board of directors and appointed Mike Izbicki as the interim executive director. The State has also capped its liability for the proposed railway in order to obtain insurance for the project. The next step at the state level is to conduct an economic impact study, Izbicki says, as well a preliminary engineering assessment. The impact study will focus on such factors as a ridership analysis, environmental factors, projected tax revenue, leases, insurance, operating agreements, and various federal and state funding options.

The proposed train service could be operational by 2013-or possibly sooner, Izbicki says. Its construction depends on a number of factors, he says, including overall economic viability, negotiations with the owner of the existing rail line, Pan-Am Rail, and the amount of federal funding available for the project. The projected cost to build the system is $300 million, with annual operating expense of between $10 million and $12 million, he says. One of the options being considered is for the MBTA to run the commuter rail route, Izbicki says, noting only preliminary talks are underway.

The Downeaster, which provides passenger rail service from Boston to Portland, Maine, with stops in Exeter, Durham and Dover, is the model for the NH Capitol Corridor project, says Nicholas Coates, a proponent of passenger rail and assistant planner with the Central NH Regional Planning Commission. (His involvement in promoting passenger rail is not connected with his job and the Commission has no official stance on the subject). According to the Associated Press, ticket sales for the Downeaster rose 33 percent during the latest fiscal year and ridership was up 28 percent. Coates says that a study of the Downeaster indicates that rail service generates additional revenue for the state, and will provide a return on the investment necessary to implement the new project.

Izbicki, who is also chairman of Bedford's Town Council, views the proposed transit system as win-win for NH. For every dollar invested, there is a $6 return, he says, citing an influx of much-needed workers to the state, as well as an increase in taxable property and the creation of jobs. Izbicki should know-he co-owns B&I Transportation Consulting LLC, which does consulting work for the transportation sector, and has worked on rail systems all over the country as well as internationally, concentrating on systems and the operations of the rail. In NH, he sees the addition of rail transportation as a draw for businesses and young professionals to the state, bringing workers and shoppers here. He also sees the rail as a complement to the highly successful Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
Private Sector Support
Mark Richardson, a member of the NH Railroad Revitalization Association (NHRRA), a private advocacy group, has been spearheading the private sector's push for the rail system, along with Coates. We're looking at prospective business being added to the economy. This comes down to an economic benefit at an opportune time, says Richardson, who is also the CEO of Orbial Inc. Separate from the state's work, the private sector group will be compiling an economic impact study of the rail system, Richardson says, which will include a detailed ridership analysis and a funding analysis. Richardson stresses that the private group intends to work in lock-step with the state to ensure consistency in outreach. The Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce also supports the project. There was passenger rail service briefly between Nashua and Boston in 1981, but it ended when the Reagan administration cancelled rail projects nationally. Coates says the service was successful during its short run.

If it's not proven economically, the State should not invest, says Coates of the project. But he says the project will help to attract and retain young professionals here, contribute millions to the economy, and give the state a competitive advantage.

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