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Nashua seeks partners on rail project

By Adam Urquhart - Staff Writer | Jan 25, 2019

Passenger-Rail-Report

NASHUA – The long process of connecting New Hampshire to Boston via passenger rails continues, as officials are exploring options to make this reality.

“Hudson should have interest: Hollis, Merrimack, Litchfield would all be served by this – their businesses would be served,” Nashua Rail Transit Committee Chairman Steve Michon said during the city’s Wednesday Committee on Infrastructure meeting.

“At this point, we feel that’s an area that we could help the city of Nashua, is help understand the different interests, the different constituencies, and help build info around the benefits and the opportunities for partnership with the business community, neighboring town leadership, neighboring legislative leadership,” Michon added.

Director of Economic Development Tim Cummings and Michon spoke about the process during the meeting, while reviewing portions of the Nashua Rail Transit Committee Report.

Cummings also said the city is not in a mutually exclusive type of scenario, citing an alternative path he calls the public option approach. He said with Democrats taking firm political control in New Hampshire, Nashua has a solid chance to get state taxpayers to cover the bill for passenger rail.

“I wouldn’t want to close off any opportunity for the city of Nashua,” Cummings said. “Our goal is to bring passenger rail here.”

Nevertheless, full taxpayer funding of the project is not one of the two options explored in the report.

To view a copy of the report, go to www.nashuatelegraph.com.

The presentation brought the committee up to speed on the two current paths forward: the New Hampshire Capitol Corridor option and the Boston Surface Railroad Co. (BSRC) option. Michon said the Capitol Corridor path is a partnership with the state of New Hampshire being the lead, partnering with the state of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), running from Concord to Lowell, Massachusetts.

However, the next option is to fund the project development phase for taking the Capitol Corridor analysis to the next level, pursuing funding, understanding project costs and the engineering behind putting something such as this together and so forth.

“To get that project development phase completed, it’s a $4 million commitment with federal funding that’s already committed, actually,” Michon said.

He said the New Hampshire-led option seems contingent on the $4 million project development phase.

The newer option with BSRC came before the city in 2017. It is a public-private partnership.

“Essentially, they are a private company that wants to partner with a number of cities to operate rail in, not only running from Bedford, New Hampshire to Lowell, but also in other parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” Michon said.

When BSRC approached city officials in 2017, the company’s whole scenario is a private company entering agreements with cities such as Nashua, Lowell, Providence, Rhode Island, and Worcester, Massachusetts, to build an interstate system to connect underused or unused lines for passenger development. He said they have a phased approach to undertake this effort. The first phase is to run from Worcester to Providence. Michon said the next step is then to connect Worcester to Lowell, while the third is to connect Lowell to Concord.

“Their model is a profit-based model,” Michon said. “They’re going to make stop and they’re going to go where the demand says they’re going to make money. Their model would be different than a purely public model because they wouldn’t necessarily stop where the public wants them to stop. Again, they’re going to be sensitive to what people need, of course, but ultimately, it comes down to where there’s going to be ridership.”

He said BSRC officials are open to different scenarios, but are talking primarily about the Bedford stop near the airport with the next stop in Nashua, and then straight on down to Lowell. When BSRC approached the city in 2017, their officials also asked if the city is willing to operate a station to accommodate and be partners with them. That is already being looked into by the Nashua Rail Transit Committee.

Michon said BSRC is hoping for a project startup to Nashua and Bedford by 2023, although that is subject to change. When approached in 2017, the company asked for three things: to get the rail station prepared; to explore being a recipient of some of the federal dollars; and to lend political support.

Michon said Pan Am Railways owns the tracks and the freight rights, while MBTA owns the passenger rights. Nonetheless, Nashua Rail Transit Committee member Dan Kelly said committee members went out to look at Exeter’s train station and talked to the people who designed it.

“Exeter was a bare-bones station,” Kelly said. “It has no lavatory. It has a platform. It has a roof and that’s about it, but that’s the baseline we used to go forward.”

He said to replicate that station in Nashua, the cost came out to around $5.2 million per station, whether that be for the Crown Street area station or the South Nashua area station. However, one point Cummings made explicitly clear is the BSRC’s option only contemplates one station within the city of Nashua.

“So, if we were to pursue the Boston Surface Rail, BSRC, option, one station is all that we would be able to optimize, and relative to the non-BSRC option, I think it’s just too early to actually understand whether Nashua would have one or two stations because we’re not even sure what that project would be,” Cummings said. “If it’s developed in a way that could accommodate two stations, that’s not necessarily off the table right now.”

Later, Michon highlighted the role of the Nashua Rail Transit Committee, and said one step is to continue to plan for the next steps for BSRC or other options available and to continue to identify the roles and responsibility for the operations and station development. Michon said as the committee worked on this for the last nine or so months, they recognized this cannot be a Nashua-only scenario.

Adam Urquhart may be contacted at 594-1206, or at aurquhart@nashuatelegraph.com.

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