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Bringing commuter rail to N.H. could set the stage for ‘new generation of economic growth’

Last modified: 2/4/2015 3:31:11 PM
Extending the commuter rail system from Lowell, Mass., to Nashua and downtown Manchester would give New Hampshire the best bang for its buck, according to the Capitol Corridor Rail Study released yesterday.

The report, detailed at a press conference yesterday morning in Nashua, recommended the $245.6 million Manchester Regional Rail option over several alternatives, including an Amtrak intercity rail link between Boston and Concord. Still, the prospect of rail in Concord doesn’t end with yesterday’s recommendation – policymakers will ultimately decide which option, if any, to pursue.

“It is not off the table. It is an alternative that will be carried forward, along with the others,” said Patrick Herlihy, director of aeronautics, rail and transit for the state Department of Transportation. “At some point, a decision will need to be made by the policymakers as far as what they want to do.”

The state’s Rail and Transit Authority will now evaluate the findings and put together a strategy for beginning the project development phase. This includes a detailed financial plan, final engineering and submission of funding applications to federal transit and rail administrations.

The Manchester recommendation wasn’t a huge surprise, said Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. “I was glad to see the intercity option in Concord appears to still be on the table,” he said. “I think one of my concerns overall is that if an investment is going to be made in creating the rail corridor, it would be a shame not to jump in with both feet.”

Any of the rail options included in the report would likely have a positive impact on Greater Concord, he said.

“Overall, under most of those scenarios I think the effect on the state and greater Concord would still be large,” he said.

In the Manchester Regional Line, the report found an option that “performs very well in terms of ridership, economic development, and land-use impact.” It is also one of the most expensive options.

Financial commitments from the MBTA and as much as 50 percent in federal support, New Hampshire’s total investment would be $72 million. This includes a $50 million contingency budget required by law, meaning the actual total could be even less.

“There is no question that this investment has the potential to transform New Hampshire’s economy,” said Michael Izbicki, chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

The Manchester Regional Rail option recommended in the report would draw an average of 668,000 weekday riders annually, and carries the potential to bring 5,600 permanent jobs to New Hampshire by 2030.

The Boston-Concord option, dubbed “Interlink 8,” would cost more, attract fewer new riders and bring in thousands of fewer jobs, the report found.

Among the other options were doing nothing and creating a dedicated bus lane on the shoulder of Interstate 93.

Rail expansion was one of the things Gov. Maggie Hassan committed to in her inaugural address. At yesterday’s press conference, she cited previous achievements to highlight the state’s work on transportation infrastructure.

Expanding I-93 “was the most significant state-level investment in transportation infrastructure in almost 25 years, but we know there is still more work to do to address our transportation needs and to modernize our transportation infrastructure to meet the demands of the next generation of workers,” Hassan said during yesterday’s press conference.

In almost every statement yesterday, the expansion of the commuter rail to Manchester was linked to the state’s economic growth. Rail would keep more young people in New Hampshire and spark economic growth for decades, Hassan said. Beginning in 2013, the expansion of passenger rail would create 1,730 new jobs according to the report.

A potential 2024 Olympics in Boston represents “a tremendous window of opportunity,” Izbicki said. An integrated transportation system – such as passenger rail to Manchester and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport – could play a significant role.

But the future of rail in New Hampshire isn’t reliant on the Olympics coming to Boston in 2024, said Chris Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce.

“With or without the Olympics, the issue of passenger rail is going to move forward in New Hampshire,” he said.

The full report is available at nh.gov/dot.

Recommended route:

Manchester Regional Commuter Rail: Extension of MBTA Lowell into Nashua and downtown Manchester.

Total capital cost: $246 million

New Hampshire costs after federal grants and Massachusetts contributions: $72 million

Net annual operating cost: $1 million

New New Hampshire transit passenger trips: 2,568

Economic benefit – jobs: 5,600

Economic benefit – residential units: 3,600

Annual New Hampshire cost per new rider: $10

One of 6 alternate routes studied:

Boston to Concord Intercity link: Intercity service from Concord to North Station in Boston added onto existing MBTA Lowell-Boston service.

Total capital cost: $256 million

New Hampshire costs after federal grants and Massachusetts contributions: $128 million

Net annual operating cost: $5 million

New New Hampshire transit passenger trips: 946

Economic benefit – jobs: 2,400

Economic benefit – residential units: 1,600

Annual New Hampshire cost per new rider: $61

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)


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