New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association
Ready for the return of the rail?
- Advocates say the state needs to get on board
Rail enthusiasts and some local planners say central New Hampshire is ready for the return of passenger rail, a service it hasn't seen much of since the mid-1960s. The population is growing, highways are becoming more congested, and places like Manchester and Concord are increasingly viewed as part of the greater Boston metropolitan area.
But making that vision a reality is difficult in New Hampshire, where an amendment to the state constitution prohibits the Department of Transportation from using gas tax revenue on anything but road projects, leaving federal money as the only standard source of funding for rail projects.
That means Nashua has had to figure out how to pay its own way for extending a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority line 10 miles up from Lowell, a service it hopes to have running by 2009. It also means Concord needs to start brainstorming within the next couple of years on how to bring the train to the capital, a plan that likely won't come to fruition for another 25 years, said Tom Aspell, the interim city manager.
"It's pretty far out there because we realize that they have to get (the train) through to the south first,"Aspell said.
Each weekday, about 25,000 people from the Nashua region head to Boston to work, many of whom drive just over the border to catch a train in North Billerica or Lowell. About 18,000 commute in the opposite direction. Stephen Williams, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission, said people are ready for non-car options.
"After having 30 or 40 years of sitting in traffic, people are tired of it," he said.
Projections show the train would draw about 950 riders each day in the first year, with that number increasing to about 3,000 in 20 years. Bringing service to them hasn't been easy.
The planning commission began working with the Department of Transportation to bring rail to Nashua in the early 1990s, with plans to use state money to cover the 20 percent of the $80 million cost not paid for by the Federal Transit Administration, Williams said. In 2002, the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, which represents the trucking industry, sued the state, saying it couldn't use revenue from its gas tax for the project.
The state argued that a rail service would benefit the road system by easing congestion. In 2004, the state Supreme Court sided with the trucking industry.
Planners started over to devise a new financing proposal, and the city took the lead, creating a tax increment finance district around the area where the railroad station is planned. That will allow the city to use a portion of the tax revenue the district generates to pay off a bond on the project.
Now, the city can get back to work on the technical details, Williams said. It is waiting for a developer to close on the proposed station site, the former Dow Chemical property at the end of Spitbrook Road, and finalizing details on how to update the tracks to allow for trains traveling 60 mph.
It has to prepare studies to submit in order to get federal money, Williams said. And there is still the train itself to buy - at a cost of about $28 million.
Opinions vary on how quickly the Nashua line should be extended to Manchester and Concord.
Williams said building a railroad is like building a business. He wants to get the route to Nashua established, show it can be successful and then expand from there.
"Ray Kroc didn't start a million McDonalds the first year," he said.
Others, such as Mark Richardson, spokesman for the nonprofit New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association, say residents in central New Hampshire shouldn't have to wait for rail access.
"Twenty-five years is a long time to wait . . . when the line actually already exists," Richardson said.
He thinks the state's long-term plan to focus nearly all of its transportation money on road projects at a time when the population is aging is shortsighted. A report released last year by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire said about half the state's residents do not have access to public transportation.
Just as the state leaders are willing to invest in roads, schools and hospitals, Richardson said, they should be willing to invest in alternative transportation that would build on the state infrastructure.
He thinks bringing a commuter line up through Concord as soon as possible would be a good start.
"When you actually start to break it down into a business plan, it's not as difficult as it may seem,"said Richardson, who is head of global operations for a software company. "It's more about political will."
His association has been working with legislators from Rockingham and Hillsboro counties to push a bill now before the House Public Works and Highways Committee that would require the state to bond $109 million to tack a rail component onto its $480 million plan to expand Interstate 93.
Some critics of the department's expansion plan have said the plan focuses solely on road improvements and doesn't address what will happen when the traffic congestion returns.
Nancy Girard, director of the Conservation Law Foundation, said rail is "glaringly missing" from the state's plan for I-93, particularly considering that the state owns the rails that run alongside the highway. They were once active with trains going to and from Manchester and Lawrence.
"We have a rail line there that's just lying fallow," she said. "We own it. We're not doing anything with it. . . . We could use that and create an interconnection there.
Girard, who is a member of the Department of Transportation's citizen advisory committee, sees the railroad as an opportunity for a partnership between the state and private industry that would ease road congestion and ensure that people in New Hampshire can keep moving as they age.
Kit Morgan, state Bureau of Rail and Transit administrator, said the department is working on improving bus transit on I-93 and will begin studying rail options in the next two months.
The department had ruled out the possibility of putting passenger trains in the interstate median, saying the grades are too steep for locomotive trains to climb. Morgan said the department's consultant team is going to take another look at that option because those conclusions were made based on standards for freight trains. Locomotive passenger trains may be able to handle the climb, he said.
The state has backed out of negotiations with Massachusetts and Vermont to create a high-speed rail service that would have eventually connected Boston and Montreal. The states had completed some feasibility studies when the New Hampshire Department of Transportation decided that it has other priorities, Morgan said.
That change of plan and the state's reluctance to help pay for the Downeaster, the Amtrak line that connects Portland, Maine, and Boston and which started service in 2001, have caused some to question the state's support for rail overall.
A resolution before the House Transportation Committee asks the Legislature to state its support for bringing commuter rail to New Hampshire. The resolution would be nonbinding and would not allocate money for any projects or create a new law. Still, says Kathy Hersh, who is Nashua's community development director and helped draft the resolution, it would be helpful to know the state leaders are behind the city's plan.
"We almost always hear that commuter rail is a good thing, but having that leadership think it's important to move forward is very important," she said.
Morgan said he thinks the attitude toward rail in the state is changing some, in part due to the success of the Downeaster, on which ridership increased by 18 percent in 2005.
"The Downeaster has shown that people will ride trains in northern New England," he said.
Morgan said that example will help propel the Nashua project forward.
As Concord works on the final stages of its master plan and talks with the Department of Transportation about how to manage its road and bus systems while continuing to grow, bringing commuter service here may seem like a long way off. But it has to be on planners' minds now, said Aspell, who worked on bringing the Downeaster to Haverhill, Mass., when he was a city planner there.
"Not only do we have to preserve the corridor, but we have to preserve where the proper station would be and where the parking would go and how people would get to it," he said.
Aspell said heavy planning could begin when the state begins construction on the interstate between Bow and Concord about 10 years from now.
While some people have criticized the plan for rail, saying it would bring too much growth to central New Hampshire, Aspell said growth will follow the expansion of the interstate anyway.
"The question will be, will there be an alterative to that (road system)?" he said.
Aspell said a commuter rail could help shape that by making Concord's opportunity corridor, which stretches between Horseshoe Place, the rail yard South End, the Merrimack River and the Main Street area. If there is a good public transportation system available, people moving to the city will be drawn to live within reach of it. They will want to be able to walk or bus to train each day. That will encourage compact, smart development and minimize sprawl, Aspell said.
(Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 309, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)