Editorial: Get on board with rail line purchase

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The 6.3 miles of recently abandoned rail line that extends from just north of downtown near the Pierce Manse and Horseshoe Pond to Boscawen is for sale.

The state of New Hampshire has the right of first refusal, as occurs when all rail corridors are abandoned, but it shouldn’t wait until a private buyer approaches the line’s owner, Pan Am Railways. It should act now to make the trail a reality.

We know the Department of Transportation is strapped and underfunded, but the state ran a sizable surplus and has the ability to strike while the iron rails are still in place.

If the opportunity to buy the land is lost, lost with it will be a chance to improve the quality of life and the economy of central New Hampshire.

The trail would connect with the state’s longest, the 58-mile Northern Rail Trail that runs from Boscawen to Lebanon. Eventually, it could connect with the Merrimack River Greenway Trail across the river from the State House and on to Manchester Street.

Concord lost its connection to the river when the interstate was built. It could get some of it back if the trail, which is designed for use by walkers, hikers, bicyclists and cross-country skiers, is completed. That would benefit residents and draw visitors who would eat in Concord restaurants, stay in Concord hotels and shop in downtown stores.

The state should also purchase the line because without it a return of passenger rail service to points beyond Concord would be difficult or impossible. Recreational rail trails, if owned by the state, revert to rail lines if the need arises. Economics may not justify the return of passenger rail service yet, but has anyone noticed that Interstate 93 is a parking lot on summer Sunday afternoons?

It’s hard to say what buying the line would cost, but one back-of-the-envelope estimate based on negotiations between Pan Am and the state to buy a line in Hampton suggests that the purchase would in the neighborhood of $2 million. The transportation department will begin holding hearings on its 10-year plan for projects next month.

Area residents, city officials and legislators should do all they can to let them know that the line’s purchase is a priority.

Rail trails are a public-private partnership. The state, sometimes with the aid of municipalities on the route, build the trail and do the heavy lifting but volunteers fill potholes and remove litter, leaves, downed trees and branches. In general, the more use a rail trail gets the better it becomes.

The Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, which has worked for years to make a trail for non-motorized use between Loudon Road and Manchester Street a reality has collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition that will be presented to the governor, transportation commissioner, lawmakers and others this fall urging the acquisition of the Concord line.

That effort can be joined by going to the group’s website at mrgt.org. The state now has 39 rail trails, but its capital city has none. The more the residents of Concord and its businesses show that they want the state to buy the line the more likely it is that it will happen.