How much would rail in New Hampshire really cost?

  • Democrat Colin Van Ostern, left, answers a question as Republican Chris Sununu listens during a gubernatorial debates at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H., Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. (Thomas Roy/The Union Leader via AP, Pool) Thomas Roy

Monitor staff
Published: 11/6/2016 12:13:45 AM

Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate saw lots of conflicting numbers thrown out for the cost of a proposed rail line.

The project in question is a 33-mile extension of an existing MBTA commuter rail line from Lowell, Mass., to the cities of Manchester and Nashua. Rail has been one of the most hotly contested issues in the race for governor between Democrat Colin Van Ostern and Republican Chris Sununu – and their cost estimates vary widely.

Van Ostern estimates the project will cost the state between $3 million and $4 million per year in operating fees, while Sununu generally lists the total price tag at $350 million.

So who is right?

Breaking down the costs

When it comes to commuter rail, there are two sets of numbers you need to know.

First, there’s the capital costs – the money it will take to get the rail line up and running. That amount is about $245.6 million to extend the line from Lowell to Manchester and build train stops in downtown Manchester, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and downtown Nashua.

However, the project can leverage dollars and money from the MBTA – which could leave the state bonding about $72 million, said Mike Izbicki, chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority Governance Board.

Then there’s the operating cost – the money it will take to maintain the line and trains. That’s about $11 million per year.

However, the rail study estimates that with revenue from tickets, station parking and concessions kicked in, New Hampshire will have to chip in closer to $3 million to $5 million per year.

Bay State’s role

There is a big incentive for the MBTA to run a line up to New Hampshire; they will be able to pick up more riders, including travelers flying out of the Manchester airport. The way the line currently runs, trains spend the night in Boston and then run empty to Lowell to begin the daily service.

Rail proponents hope that with a Manchester station, the train could start out in the morning by transporting early morning travelers to the Manchester airport and bring the early morning commuters to downtown Boston.

“That way, the MBTA is not running empty trains out of Boston, they’re running trains with people in them,” Izbicki said.

Downeaster comparison?

The proposed rail line is often compared to Maine’s Downeaster train – which is operated by Amtrak.

Izbicki says that’s not the best comparison because the Downeaster is an intercity operation spanning over 160 miles and there’s a different philosophy in terms of travel time.

“Commuter rail is hub and spoke,” Izbicki said.

Next stop: Election

It would take about two years to construct the proposed line, but the project depends very much on who is in the Legislature and governor’s seat next year.

Van Ostern has made rail one of the central issues of his campaign, while Sununu is resolutely opposed to the measure, saying it is a “want” for the state rather than a “need.”

The project also needs to get past the Legislature, where it has stalled in the past.

Federal funding

In March, New Hampshire House members shot down $4 million of federal money that would have covered the cost of permitting and preliminary engineering for the project.

That defeat was narrow, just 12 votes shy of passing. Two months later, the state Senate shot down the measure by two votes.

If Tuesday’s election produces another Democratic governor and flips the Legislature to blue, the project’s chances will probably improve.

Rail already in N.H.

Right now, the Seacoast, Cheshire County and the Upper Valley are all serviced by rail. In a year, high speed rail will be coming up through Brattleboro and White River Junction, Vt., getting people in Western New Hampshire to New York City in three hours.

If the proposed project fails again, “The spine of New Hampshire is the only part of New Hampshire that will not be served by true multi-modal transportation,” Izbicki said.

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the correct amount of federal grant money that New Hampshire legislators voted down this March. Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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