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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bus service from Nashua to Boston seeks more money as it keeps growing

NASHUA – The 6-year-old intercity bus service through Nashua to Boston continues to grow, to the point where its Exit 8 parking lot is 99 percent full on average – but its costs are growing, too.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation is asking for an increase of slightly more than $300,000 a year for the Boston Express service, which carried 560,000 passengers last year on more than a dozen buses daily. ...

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NASHUA – The 6-year-old intercity bus service through Nashua to Boston continues to grow, to the point where its Exit 8 parking lot is 99 percent full on average – but its costs are growing, too.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation is asking for an increase of slightly more than $300,000 a year for the Boston Express service, which carried 560,000 passengers last year on more than a dozen buses daily.

It runs along two routes from Concord to Logan International Airport and Boston’s South Station. One route runs along Interstate 93, carrying about two-thirds of the total passengers, and the other runs along the F.E. Everett Turnpike to Tyngsborough, Mass., and then Boston.

The request for $2.47 million in Federal Transit Administration funds over the next three years, an increase from $1.55 million originally budgeted, will be
considered by the Executive Council on Wednesday. Although this is federal money, it is “passed through” by the state, to use government-funding terminology, and must be approved by the council.

The operation costs about $5.5 million a year, and over the last two years, about 88 percent of costs have been covered by fares, according to Department of Transportation data – a figure that transportation officials have called one of the highest rates in the country. In the service’s first year, fares covered about 55 percent of costs.

Rides cost up to $18 one way, depending on route, time and type of ticket.

Ben Blunt, general manager for Boston Express, said the hike in the funding request is the result of increasing costs for health insurance, fuel, maintenance on the buses as they enter middle age and other factors. Boston Express has operated the service for New Hampshire since it began in 2007.

The dollar figure is the maximum that the company could bill for the service through 2018.

“We did our best guess trying to be conservative and accurate, but also safe in terms of allowing ourselves some flexibility if fuel costs do go crazy,” Blunt said.

“We want to make sure that the state has the appropriate funding to keep the service going. We will not necessarily use it all – hope we don’t use it.”

An increase in fares could reduce the government payment, but Blunt said there are no plans to hike them at this time.

“We are in discussions with the state about that,” Blunt said.

The route along the Everett Turnpike has increased about 50 percent in traffic since it started, despite a dip during the height of the recession.

“We don’t want to stunt that growth with a fare increase,” Blunt said.

A longer-term concern for the service would be the possible return of passenger rail service along the Merrimack River, connecting Nashua and Manchester with Lowell, Mass. This idea has many advocates, including Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, and is being studied by a government body called the Capitol Corridor Feasibility Committee.

“I think the assumption is (rail service) would cut into it a fair amount,” said Fred Butler, public transportation administrator for the state Bureau of Rail and Transit, which oversees the Boston Express service.

“We’re going to know a lot by the end of 2014. The capital corridor study to be done will have some recommendations.”

The service is particularly popular with commuters who prefer the plush seats with WiFi service to driving on Route 128. An extra morning bus was added in March to meet demand.

The service originally boarded at what was then the state Welcome Center off Exit 6 of the turnpike, and moved to its current location alongside Southwood Drive, off Exit 8, in 2010.

That site has 275 painted spots, and in 2013, it averaged 271 vehicles, a whopping 99 percent use – including some cars that use it as a park-and-ride lot. Butler said the state planned to restripe the lot this year, which might increase its capacity.

Exit 8 is by far the most popular spot along the Everett Turnpike bus route, accounting for about 60 percent of the route’s 193,000 passenger boardings over the course of the year, far more than locations in Manchester or Tyngsborough.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).