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Plans inch forward for bus from Concord to Manchester airport

Plans for a bus service from Concord to the airport in Manchester could include establishing a route through Manchester’s public bus system or conducting a feasibility study to apply for federal grants, according to transportation officials.

No plan is final; lawmakers, transportation officials and planning officials held an initial meeting about the bus service last month. They will meet again in March.

“We had a good first conversation, but we’ll still need to have more of those conversations,” said Mark Sanborn, federal liaison for the state Department of Transportation.

State lawmakers expressed interest in a federal grant to offer a bus service from Concord to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport after learning that a federally funded van service between the Seacoast and the airport will begin this year.

A feasibility study would be required to use a similar grant program for a bus route from Concord, which Sanborn said could take years.

Meanwhile, the Manchester Transit Authority has said it could provide the service to the airport from Concord.

The bus service already offers two buses a day from Concord to downtown Manchester, said Executive Director Mark Whitten. He said he will look into offering more and changing the route to connect with the airport.

MTA receives federal funding each year, but only uses as much as can be matched with local funding, Whitten said. Every amount of federal money he spends must come with an equal match of local or private funding. Most of MTA’s current match funding comes from the city of Manchester, but Whitten said the state or other local governments could also provide funding for an airport route.

Running a bus for one hour costs $16,000 per year, Whitten said, with half of that amount funded by the federal government.

A new route through MTA could operate as a pilot program, an interim solution or a long-term service, he said.

State Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican, said he was happy to hear that MTA could begin the bus service more quickly than expected.

“It looks like it might be able to be done sooner, and that’s good news for the region,” Boutin said.

At the airport, director Mark Brewer said officials have “been working for several years to enhance the ground transportation options.” He’s been included in recent meetings and said improved bus service would make the airport more accessible. But, he acknowledged, it could reduce the airport’s parking revenue.

“There’s the potential that a percentage of customers that have the ability or would drive now and park in our garage and provide us some additional revenue would in fact take public transportation, and the potential is there for us to have a reduction in parking revenue,” Brewer said.

Plans for the bus service from Concord may not materialize for years, Sanborn said. The east-west bus service between the Seacoast and the airport will begin this year after six years of planning. While MTA could provide a faster solution because it already has federal money, he said officials haven’t determined which option to pursue.

“Really what needs to happen is a couple more series of meetings to decide what the elected officials and the planners from the two areas really feel would best meet whatever transportation needs are identified,” Sanborn said.

The idea to provide a bus from Concord to the airport isn’t a new one, said Harry Blunt, president of Concord Coach Lines. His bus company runs direct routes from Concord to Boston and Logan Airport. He hasn’t been involved in the most recent bus route discussions. But he recalled discussions he had with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen when she was governor before the feasibility studies that led to van service from the Seacoast.

“I don’t think anybody casts it as a new idea, it just gets brought up from time to time again,” Blunt said. “And it’s like everything else – it costs money.”

The Concord Coach Lines service to Logan Airport is supported by the service to Boston, and Blunt said that’s a different market than Manchester.

Whitten, meanwhile, said he’s not sure a feasibility study would find enough demand for a direct service from Concord to the airport in Manchester. He said an MTA route would likely be combined with the company’s existing service from downtown Manchester to the airport. It would begin in Concord and stop on Elm Street in Manchester before continuing to the airport.

But Boutin, who together with Democratic Sen. Sylvia Larsen and other lawmakers asked transportation officials to look into the bus service, said he’s encouraged by the preliminary discussions.

“I think this is important . . . for people to get around in the transportation network around the region, so we’re excited about it,” he said.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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