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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Local leaders tout panel’s support for rail study, Nashua park-and-ride land purchase, as a success

NASHUA – Local leaders didn’t hide their elation for a pair of Wednesday votes that breathe new life into efforts to bring commuter rail from Boston to Nashua.

The Legislature’s Capital Budget Overview Committee approved two pieces of legislation that resurrect a Capitol Corridor rail study in New Hampshire and allow using toll credits as a match toward a $1.5 million purchase in Nashua for a future park-and-ride – which one day may include a rail station. ...

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NASHUA – Local leaders didn’t hide their elation for a pair of Wednesday votes that breathe new life into efforts to bring commuter rail from Boston to Nashua.

The Legislature’s Capital Budget Overview Committee approved two pieces of legislation that resurrect a Capitol Corridor rail study in New Hampshire and allow using toll credits as a match toward a $1.5 million purchase in Nashua for a future park-and-ride – which one day may include a rail station.

“Let the church bells ring!!!” Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams posted on his personal Facebook page Wednesday, sharing the news.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau spread the word among city aldermen with an email titled “Success.”

“Getting this study done is so important because whether you’re for rail or not for rail, unless the study is done, we’re not going to be able to move forward or not move forward,” Lozeau said Wednesday.

“It’s great news,” Board of Aldermen President Brian McCarthy added. “There is a lot of work to do, and while I don’t think I’m going to be on the train next week, I’m very hopeful I’ll be on a train in the future.”

The rail study request still requires the blessing of the Executive Council, which turned down a planning grant that would have funded it in a 3-2 vote last year. But Wednesday’s decision at least put the study back on track.

“The Capital Budget Overview Committee got this one right,” state Sen. Peggy Gilmour said in a statement. “Passenger rail isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s something that is supported by the people of Nashua.”

The Board of Aldermen has been overwhelmingly supportive of the study and bringing rail at least to Nashua.

But, since April, a resolution that would authorize the city to purchase 25 Crown St. for a future park and ride and potential rail station has sat, tabled and held in aldermanic committee.

“There was the question of where is this money going to be coming from?” said Alderman-at-Large Mark Cookson, chairman of the Infrastructure Committee, one of several groups that has held the bill for months. “This one piece of additional information will allow us to look at this again.”

According to the city’s website, the parcel, used currently by Armstrong Cabinets, consists of 5.88 acres assessed at $1.21 million.

Under the proposal, the cabinet manufacturer would remain at its location, leasing its space from the city through an agreement lasting through Dec. 31, 2013.

Lozeau said the proposal was extended to a Jan. 31 deadline. The city will meet again with the property owners to discuss the plan’s latest progress.

Some aldermen say there is still plenty of work to do to examine the Crown Street purchase.

“I guess it’s a good thing,” Alderman-at-Large David Deane said of the panel’s decisions Wednesday. “We’ll see what happens from here on out. We just have to look at the funding of it.”

“Generally, I am supportive of commuter rail,” Cookson said, “but with all the difficulties the MBTA is having just across the border, I have to approach it with a little hesitancy because I want to make sure we’re providing the best decision for the citizens of Nashua,”

The costs associated with commuter rail aren’t lost on Lozeau.

“It’s a legitimate discussion to be talking about, ‘How do we pay for the operation?’ ” she added. “I don’t think we’ve answered the question of how. We’ve got to pay for the operational costs, and that’s an important component. Someone can argue that all forms of transportation are subsidized, and I agree with that, but we still have to figure out how to pay for it and where the money will come from.”

Still in play are plans for a possible Exit 36 south off the F.E. Turnpike, which could include a multimodal transit center for transportation by rail and bus.

Other aldermen are already convinced, though, that a rail station on Crown Street, included as part of the East Hollis Street master plan for years, would present plenty of opportunities for Nashua.

“I think that is a very good spot for a downtown stop,” McCarthy said. “There’s always been debate about whether there should be one station or two, or whether we did downtown or south Nashua. There are two particularly different audiences and a lot of residential projects downtown that would benefit greatly from having a train station nearby.”

Two residential developments under way in Nashua – Renaissance Downtown’s project on Bridge Street and John Stabile’s Cotton Mill Square project on Front Street – both would benefit from accessible commuter rail in the city, McCarthy said.

“This is a vastly better situation than having to go up and defend the existence of the Rail Transit Authority that we did a couple times last session,” he added. McCarthy was referring to some state legislators’ efforts last year to dismantle the authority, which oversees commuter rail development in New Hampshire. “There are challenges, yes. It’s expensive. A lot of work needs to be done before it can happen, but this gets us closer to having rail as a reality, one way or the other, and I personally think it’s very important for the future.”

The money for the Crown Street purchase would be part of a larger Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant that the city received several years ago to develop a site for a rail station in south Nashua.

Last April, aldermen voted to accept the $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to construct a park and ride at two Nashua locations to support car pooling, intercity busing and passenger rail.

The CMAQ money would pay for the Crown Street property, while the toll credits, approved by the legislative panel Wednesday, will provide a needed match to build a park and ride there.

But there’s still a long way to go before Gate City residents will be able to wait at a downtown station for a train to Boston.

“We have no railroad tracks. We have no train,” Deane said. “We have no deal with the MBTA. This is just a starting point. … There are millions and millions of dollars that have to be spent outside of what Nashua is doing right here. It’s basic ground work, but when you look at the big picture, there’s a lot that has to be done.”

At least the concept has renewed momentum at the state level.

“Now that things have changed in Concord, things are changing rather quickly,” Deane said.

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