A New Push For Commuter Rail

Jerry Huddleston / Flickr Creative Commons

The Governor and Executive Council have agreed to study the feasibility of rail transportation.

This post was written by contributor Sheryl Rich-Kern

Despite concern from opponents about costs, supporters of bringing commuter rail back to the Granite State are determined to keep momentum on track.

For the first time in decades, state lawmakers are looking to restore commuter rail by extending existing rail lines from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Nashua, Manchester and Concord.

And with her city being the first stop over the border, Nashua’s Mayor Donnalee Lozeau is leading efforts to make rail a reality.

“One of the first things businesses ask me at Exit 1 in the technology park [off of Route 3 at the MA/NH border] is when is the train going to get here,” says Nashua Mayor Lozeau.

City officials have been asking that same question for decades.  And Nashua-based retail and commercial business are confident commuter rail will spur economic development and reduce highway congestion.

On Feb. 6, the Executive Council and Governor Maggie Hassan approved a $3.9 million feasibility study which will look at the costs and benefits of what’s officially called the “Capitol Corridor” project.

But critics question whether Nashua or the state could ever recover the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars it would need to update the rail beds — especially when so many other services, such as healthcare, public safety and education, are battling for the same slice of the state budget.

Last year, when the Governor’s Executive Council rejected $4.2 million in federal and state grants for a New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority (NHRTA) study, Lozeau met with federal officials to discuss whether Nashua could step in as the grant’s intermediary.

Lozeau says she no longer needs to pursue that option now that the study is moving forward.

The newly-elected Democratic governor recently appointed Lozeau, a Republican, to a transportation transition team that will reach out to business leaders and legislators to prioritize the state’s infrastructure needs.

While Lozeau can’t predict the outcome of the rail study, she insists that it’s time “we get the final answers to the questions from the study. That way we’ll know for certain the costs and how to manage it.”

SKEPTICS CAST PALL OVER RAIL OPTIMISM

Not everyone agrees New Hampshire has the coffers and customers to pay for commuter rail.

NHPR

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu argues that bringing rail transportation to New Hampshire would be a "boondoggle."

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu (R-Newfields) says, “We just don’t have a lot of money in the till right now.” Sununu says that when it comes to investing in transportation infrastructure, the state should focus on the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to finish widening I-93, the primary commercial corridor of the state. “Even in good times,” says Sununu, “this is still a bad idea.”

Sununu was the only councilor out of five to vote against the $3.9 million feasibility study. This is “crazy money,” says Sununu. He also questions why New Hampshire is analyzing a rail project that continues all the way up to Concord, and that when last reviewed in 2009, totaled $300 million in capital expenditures.

Sununu and other critics point out that unlike highways, trains lean on hefty subsidies. When you factor in the state’s collection of tolls, registrations and gas taxes, “highways pay for themselves,” he says. “A train does not.”  State and federal funds make up between $7 to $8 million of the annual operating costs of Amtrak’s Downeaster. Ticket sales and other revenues make up the difference.

Sununu, the self-described “lone bastion of fiscal conservatism” on the Executive Council, says he and other former councilors, have suggested taking “baby steps” that start with the high-density border community of Nashua.

This is hardly a new concept. Since the 1980s, Nashua produced numerous feasibility studies for a Nashua-Lowell extension, but the hypothetical reports never generated any construction projects.

NEW HAMPSHIRE–THE MISSING LINK IN NORTHEAST RAIL?

Nashua Mayor Lozeau says that New Hampshire is one of the only states in the Northeast that doesn’t have a viable rail system. “We shouldn’t become that doughnut hole.”

Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, says that although New Hampshire doesn’t have commuter rail, “we also don’t have a large city.”

“With or without the Capitol Corridor, we do feel that in the near to mid-term future, we will get rail to Nashua.”–Christopher Williams, CEO Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce
For example, in the Northeast, Boston’s MBTA serves Rhode Island; and Metro New York travels up to Connecticut. And while Maine has Amtrak’s Downeaster with stops in Durham, Dover and Exeter, it provides intercity passenger rail as opposed to regional commuter rail. Amtrak also runs through Vermont (it tried commuter rail in 2002, but the “Champlain Flyer” failed after nine months).

“We’re not that much of an outlier,” says Arlinghaus. “We’re very similar to the two states on either side of us, which have similar demographic profiles.”

But Peter Griffin, who heads the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association, argues that New Hampshire demographics are shifting. Today, the state is more urban, particularly in the southern tier. He cites the current success of the Boston Express bus, which operates two lines: one is along the Interstate 93 corridor from Manchester through Londonderry and Salem; the other, from the Route3/Everett Turnpike from Manchester with stops in Nashua and Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. In 2012, the state’s Department of Transportation reported an annual ridership of 546,837.

Furthermore, the Boston-to-Maine Downeaster increased its ridership by more than 4 percent in its last fiscal year, totaling 541,000 passengers, with about a fifth boarding from New Hampshire.

“That kills the old mindset that people will not get out of their cars, will not take public transportation and that New Hampshire is too rural,” says Griffin.

NASHUA CREATES A FOUNDATION FOR RAIL

The Nashua Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) has been assessing the economic, environmental and engineering impacts of commuter rail since the 1980s. In 1981, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the former New Hampshire Transportation Authority and the Boston and Maine Railroad carried passengers from Boston to its own capital in Concord, with drop-offs and departures in Nashua and Manchester.

Marc Nozell / For NHPR

Governor Maggie Hassan supports studying the feasibility of commuter rail in New Hampshire.

After less than a year, that experiment failed, and any hopes of a commuter train disappeared from the horizon. Yet the goal to restore service from its heyday of the 1960s isn’t fading from the NRPC’s vision.

For the city of Nashua, “it’s all about economic development,” says Christopher Williams, CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. He says some of the largest employers in New Hampshire — two major hospitals, Benchmark Electronics, BAE, Fidelity— reside in the Nashua area, and the state could bring even more companies to the region. “But those companies want to know there’s a solid infrastructure. They want to know there is solid public transit for their employees to be able to take jobs in the Nashua area.”

“Even in good times, this is still a bad idea.”–Chris Sununu, Executive Councilor
Amidst a graying state, New Hampshire is campaigning to retain its young people, half of whom move to another state after graduating college. Nashua Mayor Lozeau explains that to woo the under-30 workforce, businesses need to accommodate a generation that no longer wants to rely on gas-guzzling autos. She says that population wants a mobile lifestyle, and is drawn to affordable, urban locales that offer an ease of getting from place to place.

“We have a high concentration of engineers per capita,” says Lozeau, and business owners are “interested in having the ability to move people in between multiple locations and being able to attract workers both from Nashua and from Burlington to Nashua.”

“Nashua is laying the groundwork for rail to eventually make it to our city,” says Williams. “With or without the Capitol Corridor, we do feel that in the near to mid-term future, we will get rail to Nashua.” Williams foresees the city might share a rail station with Tyngsboro, right over the Massachusetts border, or “in a perfect world,” a Nashua downtown stop with several more on up to Concord.

Although the future of rail is undecided, Nashua is taking steps to construct potential rail stations, which it envisions as multi-modal transit systems for cars, as well as trains, buses and shuttles.

On February 13, the Nashua Board of Aldermen approved spending $1.4 million to buy a parcel at 25 Crown Street, with $6.5 million in federal seed money from the Federal Highway Administration and  $280,000 from the US Department of Transportation toll credits to match the city’s portion of the costs. The six-acre tract, assessed at $1.21 million, is near downtown and close to municipalities east of the river.

RAIL STATIONS CREATE ECONOMIC SPINOFFS

Nashua’s mayor and the Chamber of Commerce believe that transit-oriented developments are likely to spawn a cluster of other commercial and retail redevelopments, which in turn, generate disposable income back into the state.

redjar / Flickr Creative Commons

A key point of contention between rail supporters and critics: How much economic benefit would New Hampshire see from commuter rail?

Councilor Sununu says that may be true when passengers fill the cars in both directions. Yet he doubts the state can rely on reverse commuters from Massachusetts up to Nashua. How would they get to an office in Merrimack, for example?  “It’s a boondoggle. There’s no two ways about it,” he says.

Perhaps an intricate shuttle or intercity bus service does not exist today, but rail enthusiasts propagate a “build-it-and-they-will-come” mentality.

In Nashua, Mayor Lozeau says a multi-modal system can develop in parallel with the growth of a commuter line. Nashua already has a robust rapid transit system, the “Citybus,” which in 2012 delivered 537,000 rides.

Rail lines are not only about serving commuters going to work, says Griffin, of the Railroad Revitalization Association. Trains drive the economic engines of tourism, too. Again, look at the Downeaster, he says. It recently extended its Boston to Portland service to Brunswick, with a station in Freeport, which like other outlet centers, emulates a 19th century town square. “New Hampshire could also do that,” with the Merrimack Premium Outlets, which is a frequent stop on Boston-area luxury shop-and-stay travel packages.

BUT DOES RAIL MAKE FINANCIAL SENSE FOR NEW HAMPSHIRE?

In a Capital Corridor Project Overview white paper prepared for the NH Rail Authority, the NH Department of Transportation and the NRPC, a regional consulting company projected capital costs of $300 million.

Proponents say these estimates are out of date, may be too high and don’t reflect changing environmental concerns or the success of other modes of public transportation, such as the Boston Express bus and the Amtrak Downeaster.

Dan4th Nicholas / Flickr Creative Commons

The decision on whether the Capitol Corridor gets commuter rail could stretch well into the future.

Charlie Arlinghaus with the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, says the estimates from the NHRTA study definitely won’t reveal an outlay the state can manage, especially in a year when other services, like education and healthcare, are siphoning from the same pot of money.

In a Business and Industry Association forum on commuter rail last September, Arlinghaus said he would love for trains to be a useful transportation option — “but they’re not.” He went on to explain that from 2007 to 2011, the state increased its bonding from $600 to $900 million. That’s a 45 percent increase, compared to only a three or four percent increase in the previous four-year cycles. “We don’t have any excess bonding capacity,” he said.

Based on the operating costs of the Downeaster from Maine, Arlinghaus says the state would need in the ballpark of $10 to $20 million to maintain a rail line that would end in Concord, so he questions why we’re studying commuter rail project in the first place. “The chance of it [commuter rail to Concord] happening is zero,” he says.

Arlinghaus suggests two likely commuter rail scenarios: One is an extension of the Lowell line to Nashua; and the other, an extension of the Haverhill line to Plaistow. However, the latter is not a consideration in the Capitol Corridor project.

Recently, the MBTA proposed paying the cost of a Haverhill extension, with Plaistow footing the bill for a maintenance facility.

Arlinghaus adds that an abbreviated version – a Lowell to Nashua line — would result in operating costs of less than $1 million.

Nashua may have the most to gain from the NHRTA commuter rail study, and it could conceivably launch a prototype of what a future New Hampshire Capitol Corridor project has to offer.

Department of Transportation officials say the study will take about eighteen months to complete.

After that, the hard data it generates is likely to spark even more controversy over whether commuter trains can help drive the New Hampshire economy and keep it rolling.

Listen to an hour-long program on rail in the Granite State from the archives of NHPR’s The Exchange.
Clarification note:  This article was edited to better reflect the annual operating costs of Amtrak’s Downeaster.

Comments

  • Michael

    How can he say that highways operate without subsidies? Gas tax is a huge subsidy, not a user fee like a toll. Whether or not I chose to drive on them or not, I have to pay gas taxes to fund interstates. It’s not like I have a choice.

    How is that any different than subsidizing rail?

  • http://twitter.com/ocschwar ocschwar

    Where does Sununu get this silly notion that highways pay for themselves? In NH most of the revenue for the highway system comes from property tax. Less than half comes from user fees.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The argument is for commuter rail service in part is to reduce highway congestion; but opponents are arguing education and health care needs and overlooking highway maintenance costs that would be mitigated in trying to change the subject and framing of the discussion.

  • Eben Sweetser

    Actually the Amtrak Downeatser “cost” the state of Maine $1.9-million last year in operating subsidy, while bringing in an additional $2-million in tax revenues that would not exist otherwise. But yeah Sununu $7 or $8 million is close enough.

    The great thing about being a politician is you can say what you want, and even if it’s not true people will believe you and newspapers will publish it.

  • Nathanael

    Sununu is utterly wrong. Highways don’t pay for themselves. A few toll roads do, but the rest of the highways are sucking up money from property tax, sales tax, and federal income tax like a vacuum cleaner.

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