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Monday, November 8, 2010

Transport projects are slow to go

NASHUA – Someday, you might be able to drive from Broad Street near the turnpike’s Exit 6, cross the river into the Millyard and come out just a couple of blocks from downtown.

Someday, you might be able to board a train in Boston and take it through Lowell into the city and even beyond Nashua to Manchester and Concord.

It seems as if the first scenario is much closer to becoming reality than the second.

But history suggests that neither is a sure thing.

The Broad Street Parkway project is expected to cost about $68 million and is being paid for in part by federal money and in part by a $37.6 million bond the aldermen approved in 2008. So far, the city has spent $14 million in federal money. More property also will have to be acquired; some lots already have been taken through eminent domain, including property that lay in the path of the old route but that no longer lie in the new path.

Construction would likely begin next spring with the removal of the former Boiler House in the Millyard. If the project stays on track, the parkway is expected to be completed in 2014.

However, as testimony in a developer’s lawsuit pointed out, the parkway was thought to be a sure thing a decade ago.

Samuel Tamposi Jr. testified in Hillsborough County Superior Court on Oct. 19 that he was told by state transportation officials that construction of the parkway would start in the fall of 2000 and would be completed in 2004.

Tamposi said he lost money on land deals because it never happened, and he’s suing the city.

Restoring commuter rail from Boston to Nashua is a much more costly and complex process.

Last January, the state was denied a chunk of stimulus money it sought for commuter rail. However, the N.H. Department of Transportation recently received a $2.24 million grant to plan the development of passenger rail service from Concord to Boston.

The planning money is the next step in the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority’s ambitious plans to develop the New Hampshire Capital Rail Corridor, which is envisioned to provide commuter rail service from Concord to Boston, including a key link between Nashua and Lowell, Mass.

“Because this is real – we have money – this now becomes a project,” said Mike Izbicki, interim executive director of the N.H. Rail Authority.

Chairman of the Bedford Town Council, Izbicki was appointed to the authority as a rail expert.

The state already received a $1.9 million grant to explore extending rail to Manchester, he noted.

Feasibility studies already have been completed on commuter rail, Izbicki said.

The federal money will be used to explore the impact of rail on the environment and to assess the economic benefit of commuter rail, he said.

Also, improving freight service will also be examined, Izbicki said.

“Without quality freight service, you can’t have passenger rail,” he said.

Part of the planning will also involve examining how private developers would work with cities to create rail stations, Izbicki said.

“That’s the type of stuff we’re trying to flesh out,” he said.

Planning will also help answer the big questions that people have been asking, such as the operating costs, Izbicki said.

Who operates the railroad will be a factor in determining that, he said.

There’s also the huge question of upgrading the miles of tracks and working with the tracks’ current owner, Pan Am Railways, has been difficult, state rail proponents have said.

The federal grant requires a $560,000 match from the state, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau said.

Nashua has already received $5 million in federal dollars funneled through the state for building a rail station, Lozeau said.

Last February, Lozeau traveled to Washington, D.C., to promote commuter rail.

In a meeting arranged by U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., the mayor and state transportation Commissioner George Campbell met with Raymond LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary. The purpose of the trip was to hear federal officials’ thoughts on restoring commuter rail to New Hampshire while sharing with them the challenges the state is facing concerning commuter rail, Lozeau said.

Some estimates put the cost of operating commuter rail at $10 million annually, with about 60 percent to be paid through fares, Lozeau said.

Among the most pressing questions is where the other 40 percent would come from, Lozeau said.

Such questions make the future of commuter rail uncertain, even though numerous groups, including the Conservation Law Fund, applaud the awarding of the $2.24 million federal grant.

“This is a hugely important decision which will allow this critical rail project to stay on track and, we hope, ultimately proceed to construction,” said Tom Irwin, vice president and director of fund’s New Hampshire Advocacy Center.

“The eventual operation of passenger rail in this busy travel corridor will move New Hampshire toward a cleaner transportation system, provide greater transportation choice and promote significant opportunities for sustainable economic development in New Hampshire’s largest cities,” Irwin said.

Combating pollution downtown and encouraging economic development also were key arguments made for building the Broad Street Parkway.

Commuter rail and the parkway are projects that many people see as positive steps for the city’s transportation future, although, because of funding and other issues, neither seems in a hurry to arrive.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com.