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N.H. DOT presents preliminary options for Boston-Concord transit system

Ken Kinney pointed his red laser at one of the illuminated slides of his presentation at the state Department of Transportation headquarters last night.

“You are here,” he told the group of about 30 people, the little red dot circling the middle of a list of dates.

“Here” is far from the last date on that schedule: the 2020 start of a new Boston-to-Concord transit system that could include passenger rail and expanded bus service.

Kinney, the project manager, is leading a study to find out what that system would look like – and how the state and local communities would pay for it, and whether it would be cost-effective to extend passenger rail service all the way to Concord. Kinney presented initial plans for what he called the “New Hampshire Capitol Corridor” at the public meeting, but his team also acknowledged they have a long way to go before commuters can catch a train from central New Hampshire to Boston.

“If we’re going to move a rail project forward, we need to get about 50 percent of the capital costs from Washington,” Kinney said. “Is there a decent likelihood that we would be able to do that?

“So far, the conclusion is this is not a slam dunk, but we feel that we can be in the ball game. We need a well-developed project to be in that ball game.”

The study began early last year, when the Executive Council approved a $3.7 million contract with Kinney’s firm, URS Corp., to study the feasibility of passenger rail in the 73 miles between Boston and Concord. About $3.2 million of that contract is paid for with federal grant money, and the state has picked up more than $411,000 of matching funds in bonds.

Today, some bus lines run between Concord, Manchester and Boston, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority runs passenger rail service between Boston and Lowell, Mass. One option presented last night extended the MBTA line from Lowell through Nashua, Manchester and Concord, although Kinney said Amtrak could also run an intercity line along that same route. In both scenarios, the trains would follow existing tracks used for freight.

He also suggested running buses in the shoulder lanes of the highways during peak traffic hours. That change alone could shave eight to 12 minutes off current travel times to Boston, Kinney said, and expanding bus service could also help make the commute quicker.

“What does rail do best?” Kinney said. “What does bus do best? And fundamentally, can we develop a system approach that takes advantage of what rail does best and what bus does best, and do them both? . . . I think our conclusion is that the answer to that is yes.”

Their plan calls for one station in Concord – an addition to the existing Stickney Avenue bus station. Both buses and trains could run out of that expanded station, and URS consultant Carl Chamberlin said an ideal plan would also include a nearby layover station to hold trains between runs.

“We’re in communication with the city,” Chamberlin said. “We know this is an area they would like to develop.”

The proposed passenger rail line could also stop at stations in downtown Manchester, at the Manchester airport, in Nashua and in Lowell before the end of the line in Boston.

“We want to improve access to higher-paying jobs in Boston,” Kinney said. “We like to say, ‘Commute from New Hampshire and return money back to New Hampshire.’ ”

But the project will be expensive, even if the federal government picks up half the tab. Capital and operating costs for a railway just from Boston to Manchester could cost the state between $8 million and $10 million per year, Kinney said. And most of the numbers in last night’s presentation focused on the Boston to Manchester route, which Kinney said could pick up an estimated 3,100 riders on a weekday.

“Within New Hampshire as we move further south, the market is stronger and the ridership gets stronger, which has an impact on where we put the northern (end of the passenger rail line),” Kinney said.

Few members of the crowd commented about the plan, but Derry resident Paula Walach reminded the consultants of the benefits that public transit has for older commuters and travelers. Walach works for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which works with the MBTA, and she said she is a frequent railroad passenger.

“I’m over 65,” she said. “Am I going to be driving a car for the rest of my life?”

Peter Dearness owns the New England Southern Railroad and runs freight out of Concord. He asked the consultants to consider his trains that run through the city when planning the station – and ideally, to plan for a separate track in the station for freight.

“If they do decide it would be beneficial and they get the funding, (we need to make sure) the rail footprint is protected up in the north end of town,” Dearness said.

A full copy of last night’s presentation will be available at nhcapitolcorridor.com. The meeting was the second of three public hearings on the study; the last hearing will be held in Nashua when a final report is ready in late fall.

Once the report is finished, if the state wishes to go forward with the project, it would need to secure federal dollars for it, then the Legislature and the governor would have to sign off on a plan. On Kinney’s schedule, service could begin in 2020 – but Patrick Herlihy, director of aeronautics, rail and transit for the state, cautioned the group on that timeline.

“This is the best-case scenario,” Herlihy said.

“If all goes well at a state (and) local level and a federal level, it can be done,” Kinney said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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