When New Hampshire residents discuss the revival of commuter rail, they are usually referring to the controversial “Capitol Corridor,” an estimated $300 million project which seeks to extend tracks northward from the MBTA station in Lowell to Nashua, and then on to Manchester and Concord.
Earlier this year, the Executive Council approved moving forward with a $3.9 million feasibility study that will explore the proposed rail’s financial and environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, a smaller-scale push for locomotives is provoking a quieter debate in another pocket of the state: in Plaistow, a southeastern town bordering Haverhill, Massachusetts, with a population under 8,000.
Sean Fitzgerald, Plaistow’s town manager, has long advocated for a commuter rail station, which would extend the Haverhill MBTA line by four or five miles. He trumpets it as an incubator for transit-oriented residential and commercial development, as well as a means of alleviating congestion from the highway.
In the last 15 years, the number of vehicles clogging the commercial Route 125 corridor has increased dramatically, according to Sheldon Wolff, owner of Wolff Realty Group in Plaistow since 1991. Because of the town’s proximity to Route 495, I-93 and I-95, Plaistow is a magnet for large chain stores and businesses. “There’s a bottleneck coming off 495 [from Haverhill] into 125. The town has been doing numerous things to alleviate traffic.”
Fitzgerald says that depending on the time of day, “it can take 20 to 40 minutes to travel from Route 125 in Plaistow to the Haverhill MBTA station,” with up to 26,000 trips a day.
Wolff acknowledges that commuter rail would likely ease traffic. But he says not everyone in town champions the arrival of a commuter train, mostly because its construction may also include a noisy layover station for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to park its trains overnight.
“If you want to leave your windows open in the summer, you’re going to hear the diesel engines idling all night,” says Wolff. In addition, he raises concerns about fuel spills seeping into groundwater.
Nonetheless, Wolff says the train could prove successful, but only if it’s convenient and affordable. “If the train doesn’t stop where they [commuters] need to go, and isn’t going to cost the same or less [as driving in a car], they probably wouldn’t take it.”
Getting Rail on Track at an Affordable Cost
Town officials, along with the Rockingham Planning Commission, have been trying to restore the commuter train for at least two decades. In its heyday of the 19th century, the B&M Railroad bustled with three depots in Plaistow; passenger trains stopped four or five times a day in town on route from Portland to Boston. In all, the service spanned a hundred years, ending in 1968.
On June 5, the Executive Council and Governor voted 5-0 to spend $658,316 in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds to study the environmental and economic feasibility of a commuter rail station in Plaistow. The study will look at locations in the vicinity of the Park and Ride lot on Westville Road, about a half-mile from the Route 125 intersection.
The study will also look at building a layover station for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). This is despite heavy opposition from residents concerned about noise and pollution.
In a benefit-cost analysis prepared for the town in 2010, a private consulting firm concluded that over a 30-year period, new and existing rail users would realize $99.1million of savings from reduced auto maintenance and travel costs, such as gas and parking. This assumes that 24 percent of the Haverhill riders would divert to Plaistow.
“For those unable to drive,” says Fitzgerald, “the train will give them access to the social, cultural, and medical resources of Boston. And for those unable to take the train, less traffic through the congested areas will result in reduced travel time.”
If Plaistow can restore commuter rail through an interstate agreement with the MBTA, Fitzgerald projects that with the existing infrastructure, “we’ll meet or exceed costs associated with operations of the rail.”
Town officials estimate capital costs will reach around 30 million dollars, with the majority of funds coming from federal sources.
Exploring a Partnership with the MBTA
According to Cliff Sinnott, the executive director of the Rockingham Planning Commission, preliminary conversations between the MBTA and the town began in the 1990s. In 1996, Plaistow laid the groundwork for commuter rail when it established a park and ride lot with 277 spaces on Westville Road.
During the same time period, MBTA officials were scouting for alternatives for its current layover facility in Bradford, Massachusetts, a dense suburb south of the Haverhill MBTA train station, deemed too small and out of date for the MBTA’s current needs, and considered a nuisance by its residents.
In the fall of 2008, the MBTA approached town officials in Plaistow to pursue a commuter rail station in connection with a Plaistow layover facility.
But the conversation encountered roadblocks: Pan Am Railways, the holding company that owns the rail lines from Maine to Boston, would not grant access to other railroad operators.
However, in January of 2011, Pan Am signed a Trackage Rights Agreement with the MBTA, dissolving any future barriers to a commuter rail extension.
Finally, town officials could put rail back on track.
Yet, while some business leaders applaud the possibility of a Haverhill-Plaistow MBTA commuter rail extension, many Plaistow and neighboring Atkinson residents are up in arms over the construction of a layover station: as it turns out, they are no more likely to want the idling trains clamoring near their doorsteps any more than the residents of Bradford do.
Sinnott acknowledges that “layover facilities create noise and aren’t particularly welcome in closely-spaced residential areas.”
Some, like analyst Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, view this project as a solution that benefits MBTA more than it does New Hampshire. Arlinghaus wonders if MBTA officials would consider the four-mile extension from Haverhill if not for Plaistow providing a layover facility. “In exchange, a few commuters get to park their cars on this side of the border for essentially the same train ride?”
Fitzgerald is quick to point out that this scenario is not about an underlying deal or exchange: “If the state line didn’t exist, there would already be a stop in Plaistow.” He says New Hampshire can afford the minimal investment because “all we are doing is taking advantage of geographic proximity between the existing infrastructure in Massachusetts and the close proximity of the Plaistow Westville Road Park and Ride lot.”
He’s hoping the study will prove his point.
Fitzgerald also mentions that this type of interstate partnership already exists in Rhode Island, with the MBTA extending several miles south and west. In contrast, the anticipated MBTA partnership with New Hampshire extends the MBTA by only a few hundred yards.
MBTA officials are declining to comment on the proposed partnership, saying “at this stage in the process, we prefer to let New Hampshire officials make all the public comments on the project.”
Voices striking an opposition
In 2010, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation began looking at sites for passenger and layover train stations near the Westville Homes on the border of Atkinson and Plaistow, as well as the Pen Box site on Main Street in Plaistow.
Last year at a town meeting, Plaistow residents voted 619-308 against pursuing any potential rail projects.
Executive Councilor Christopher Sununu represents the towns of Atkinson and Plaistow and attended several of the local meetings. He says, “what was on that ballot was poorly worded, very confusing and nobody really understood whether they were voting for or against it.”
Sununu says that although everyone “pretty much agreed it [the vote on the warrant article] held no merit,” he encouraged Plaistow town officials to take the controversial sites off the table or he was “not going to approve going forward with the study, because there would be a hundred different ways for Atkinson to kill the project down the road.”
Mark Sanborn, federal liaison at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, says that Sununu mediated with the DOT, the regional planning commission and the Plaistow board of selectmen to create a path forward — a path that would eliminate studying the two contested sites for a rail or layover station.
“Those sites will be noted in the study as not having local support and therefore not feasible,” says Sanborn.
Robert Clark is a member of the Commuter Rail Investigatory Committee, which Atkinson selectmen set up to address environmental concerns.
Clark says he’s glad the two towns and the state eliminated the two sites for the study, but remains concerned about the “pollution New Hampshire would inherit from Massachusetts,” for example, the excessive idling of diesel engines.
“The age of the fleet increases the amount of pollution a diesel engine will emit,” says Clark. “They [the MBTA] can bring the trains up here and let them idle for 24 hours a day if they choose.”
Massachusetts has a law that limits idling for 30 minutes. However, according to the 2010 Commuter Rail Investigatory report, the MBTA has not always enforced these limits at its 14 layover facilities.
In fact, in 2010, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a lawsuit against the MBTA for violating state regulations that prohibits engines from idling more than half an hour. The case settled without a trial. The MBTA paid a $225,000 fine, and had to install electric “plug-in” stations for each engine, replace at least 14 on-board power generators to reduce emissions, and begin using a low-sulfur fuel.
In addition to air pollution, Clark worries about the noise.
“Why are you forcing us to take a train layover yard, which is the worst part of any train system,” he asks. “Every time a train leaves the yard, it has to test all its systems. The horn is one of them…with the 21 trains, we figured out there would be 64 sets of whistles we would be hearing in the valley area that would radiate in the surrounding towns.”
He also questions why Plaistow needs a rail station. The Haverhill platform is only three or four miles away where you can park, take a train or a bus into Boston — without New Hampshire taxpayer monies. “Right now we have the best of both worlds,” says Clark. “We don’t pay anything for trains – even the Downeaster.”
While the mileage is short, town manager Sean Fitzgerald says cars inch along that passage from Plaistow to Haverhill for up to 45 minutes during peak travel times.
Clark also points out that Plaistow’s attempts to provide alternatives to the auto haven’t panned out in the past. For example, an express bus from Epping, Kingston and Plaistow to Boston ran from 1994 to 2002, but discontinued because of lack of ridership.
Matthew Coogan, director of the New England Transportation Institute, says that a decline in bus riders is not a barometer of success or failure. As it turns out, he explains, buses pose the same unreliability as cars because both get stuck on multi-purpose roads: “Either we have to figure out a way to get buses some capacity on the roadway or expand the rails and get the rails some capacity.” Admittedly, he favors any service that gets people out of their cars.
Minimizing Financial Risk
In contrast to the Capitol Corridor project, the study for commuter rail in Plaistow carries less financial risk, according to proponents like Cliff Sinnott of the Rockingham Planning Commission. For one thing, the trains already exist: Amtrak’s Downeaster from Maine trundles through, but doesn’t stop, in Plaistow.
“A lot of the capital costs don’t apply here because the railbed, the switching and a whole lot of the infrastructure has already been upgraded to handle high speed trains,” says Sinnott. “The second, and more persuasive [argument], is that because of the potential relocation of a layover facility, the ongoing operating costs will be essentially not charged [to New Hampshire].”
While there is no existing agreement, Sinnott notes that in 2010, the MBTA signed a letter of intent, proposing to assume the operating costs, in a partnership similar to the one it has with Rhode Island. “In that case, “ say Sinnott, “New Hampshire will benefit from access to commuter rail without the operating costs burden that goes with it.”
However, Sinnott adds that while the risk is minimal, it doesn’t have the same ridership potential that the Capitol Corridor does. “In the long run, that [the Capitol Corridor project] makes a great deal of sense for where a lot of capital investment should be made for rail service in the future.”
But despite the lack of population density, “this one [Plaistow rail] also makes sense because the barrier to entry is very low. The cost per passenger is probably the same or less than it would be for Nashua.”
Plaistow town manager Sean Fitzgerald adds that a rail station could potentially increase valuations and investments in Plaistow, with economic activity that typically sprouts around commuter rail stops.
However, Josh Josh Elliott-Traficante, a policy analyst and director of transparency with the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, casts doubt that rail stations promote economic development. He says rail stations may influence where a business chooses to locate, but not whether or not it decides to open.
He cites a 2010 study by the Bookings Institution, which suggests that transit investments do little to change urban structures, and can’t — unless car ownership becomes prohibitively expensive: “More than three decades of research provides some reasonable indicators of conditions under which transit investment does contribute to changes in the spatial structure of metropolitan areas; those conditions, however exist in relatively few places.”
Despite the question of economic feasibility, most public officials are not trying to put the spoke in the wheels of this project.
Chris Sununu, the only one of five Executive Councilors to vote against the Capitol Corridor feasibility study, says that although he’s no fan of commuter rail, “this one is fairly unique in how it potentially can be funded. The study didn’t cost that much and I told everyone, let’s get the study and make sure we’re all looking at same numbers and agreement about the impact of this before we decide to move forward.”
Ultimately, both studies are moving forward, giving the state a useful comparison.
Correction: An earlier version of this story named state legislators as approving the study.