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Sunday, December 9, 2012

The train hasn’t left the station on NH commuter rail just yet, officials say

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in an occasional series of stories examining 50 years of Nashua business. Stories and multimedia pieces will focus on Milestones, Hidden Assets, and Economic Engines in the city’s business community.

NASHUA – Most city leaders agree one of the best ways to attract high-quality businesses and employees from northern Massachusetts is to extend commuter rail from Boston to Nashua. ...

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in an occasional series of stories examining 50 years of Nashua business. Stories and multimedia pieces will focus on Milestones, Hidden Assets, and Economic Engines in the city’s business community.

NASHUA – Most city leaders agree one of the best ways to attract high-quality businesses and employees from northern Massachusetts is to extend commuter rail from Boston to Nashua.

It’s a vision that has been shared and discussed for decades, but the plan has stalled in the last few years.

Outside the city, not everyone was onboard.

New officials taking power in Concord, including a Democratically controlled Executive Council and House, have reignited talks of bringing commuter rail to Nashua. City leaders say the time to get the project moving again has arrived.

Earlier this year, the Executive Council voted to reject federal funds to study the feasibility of bringing commuter rail from Boston to Concord. But the $3.2 million in federal grants is still available, at least through 2013, officials believe.

“They have not expired, and the feds have not requested their return or have removed the grant offer,” said Tom Mahon, chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

The authority met Nov. 16 to discuss drafting a letter to Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan to share hopes of bringing the rail study grants before the governor and Executive Council again, Mahon said.

Hassan, along with three Executive Councilors who won seats Nov. 6, ran in support of rail in their respective races this fall.

A project such as commuter rail takes lot of time, money and support from multiple layers of government and the private sector.

“At this point, I’m optimistic,” Mahon said. “But given the nature of New Hampshire politics, we still have to go through the legislative Capital Budget Committee to get the match for the Federal Transit Administration.”

That won’t be easy.

For one, rail opponents balk at the $400,000 state match required of the federal grants to do the study.

Others point to commuter services such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority – which has the highest debt burden of any transportation system nationwide – as a warning not to invest in passenger trains.

But if an ambitious regional planning project called A Granite State Future is any indicator, many residents’ hopes of riding rail from Concord to Boston are still very much alive.

Surveys throughout the state revealed that people from Mason to Milford would like an accessible commuter rail system to Boston.

“Improved mass transit; freight – rail would encourage industrial expansion,” a person from Boscawen said.

Another, from Henniker, called for “public transportation/carpool to Concord/airport/entertainment/more young folks and ideas/rail … Boston to Canada.”

A Granite State Future is a three-year program executed by the state’s nine planning commissions that will use grass-roots dialogue to update their respective regional plans.

“All of the meetings that we’ve gone to over the fall, we’ve gone to pumpkin fests and old home days, and everybody always asks, ‘When are we getting rail?’ ” said Kerrie Diers, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission.

Locally, a brand campaign initiated by the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and the city also indicated residents inside and outside Nashua want passenger rail running past the Massachusetts border.

But for every voice in favor of rail, there’s a shout against it.

Meanwhile, the rest of the state waits to see what its new leaders will do about the lingering federal funds.

“Anytime there’s a transition, we need to wait for any kind of direction regarding that,” said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “We don’t have a position at this point.”

History

New Hampshire had a railroad service along the Nashua and Lowell Railroad since 1838.

Near the end of the 19th century, the network of lines came under ownership of a few major railroads – mostly Boston & Maine Railroad – and were used for business and travel.

The system thrived through World War I, but by about the 1980s, the increasing number of cars and trucks on the roads, combined with new ways of storing and transporting products, stifled passenger lines here.

Daily commuter rail from Nashua to Boston shut down in 1967, except for a brief experimental stint in 1980, when a few services operated from Concord to Boston’s North Station through Lowell, relying on limited MBTA trains and New Hampshire’s limited funds.

When the federal grant behind the service was terminated in 1981, so was the system known as “the Minute Man Service” from Concord, Manchester and Nashua to Boston, along with others around the country.

Ever since, a fight to restore Lowell’s rail line through to Concord has ensued over how it should be funded, plus how to and who should operate it.

At least the last three governors have supported reinstituting a passenger service, but state Legislature support has flip-flopped with the party majority.

Meanwhile, several studies have been completed about bringing rail through the state, including a 2003 study that considered high-speed rail from Boston to Montreal and a 2004 environmental assessment on bringing trains over the Massachusetts line into Nashua. Another study led to the opening of the Amtrak Downeaster line, bringing commuters from Portland, Maine, to Boston in 2001.

In 2007, Gov. John Lynch signed legislation that first authorized the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. It has faced a number of unsuccessful death threats from state Legislatures ever since.

Crashing cars

Skeptics point to previous Granite State studies through the early 2000s that looked at bringing rail to Nashua on parallel lines through the state. Some, which have estimated the project could cost $300 million, calculate a price tag that’s too high to risk a $400,000 state match to fund yet another federal investigation of the plan.

But proponents point to surveys such as the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Poll in 2011 that indicated more than half of New Hampshire residents still favor extending commuter rail up from Boston. Earlier studies indicated the economic spinoff of commuter rail in the first 20 years of operation is about $2 billion, along with the creation of nearly 1,000 jobs a year.

“There’s significant activity in other areas of the region, and we’re the doughnut hole in the middle where there’s nothing going on,” Mahon said. “If we fall behind on the capability to provide transportation resources, our economy is going to be affected.”

The opposing sides are stubborn.

Just this year, Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, joked about being tarred and feathered by Nashua aldermen who lambasted him at a public meeting for casting one of three votes that denied the federal rail study.

“It’s very easy to be for something if you’re not going to be asked to pay for it,” Wheeler said during their April meeting. “Not only is it the cost of the study, but where are we going to get the money to subsidize the operation? … We just don’t have that money.”

He told The Telegraph editorial board shortly afterward that New Hampshire didn’t have the population density to support commuter rail.

“One of the fundamental problems with trains is they don’t have their own revenue stream,” Wheeler told The Telegraph. “We are looking toward trains in the future; it’s just, can we support them now financially?”

But local voters silenced Wheeler in November, instead re-electing Deb Pignatelli, D-Nashua, a vocal rail supporter, to fill his place.

Along the way, the state hasn’t extinguished the idea of rail altogether; it has included room for rail lines along the Interstate 93 widening project and is weighing a possible rail station in plans for a multimodal transit facility at a future Exit 36 south to be built off the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

“We will be looking for direction from the new governor and council as to whether they would want to go forward with something like that,” Boynton said. “We’re going to wait and see if there is any sort of change in that approach.”

Meanwhile, cities such as Nashua haven’t given up on commuter rail, either. Mayor Donnalee Lozeau has suggested the city could work with the federal government, the governor’s office and other members of the Executive Council to consider using the rejected funds to bring rail to Nashua.

The city also is eyeing a $1.4 million land purchase on Crown Street for a potential park and ride and rail station there.

But perhaps, as new executives and legislators take office, it will resume the project as a top-down, statewide effort.

“What has stayed the same is the support for it,” Diers said. “The chambers, they’re still working very hard in support of this, as are all the regional planning commissions. That has not changed even though the funds were rejected; we’re still looking for options.

“We’re hopeful there are still options for those studies to go forward and really provide the definitive answers that we’re looking for.”

But the money won’t last forever.

“Right now they’re very patient, and they’re willing to let us make the effort to keep this alive and keep it going until we get the approval we need,” Mahon said. “I’m not sure we have another year. The feds might come and ask for it back.”

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).