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Delayed but not derailed
After legislative wins and losses, commuter rail plans keep chugging

07/23/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



Despite the absence of the $4 million that commuter rail advocates had hoped would be in the state capital budget, officials say the project to connect a rail system from Lowell, Mass., to Nashua and Manchester is still moving forward.

 
Studied to death
Soon after Senate budget writers voted against funding the next phase of the project — which, according to New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority Chairman Michael Izbicki, is the project development phase — Gov. Maggie Hassan signed two other bills meant to open up new sources of cash to pay for the major infrastructure project. One of those bills creates a study committee to look into public-private partnerships for transportation projects. This follows not one but three other studies done for the project.
But, Izbicki points out, not all studies are created equal. The first study, which concluded in 2009, cost $25,000.
“That was a feasibility study to look at the project and determine if it was even worth moving into the next study,” Izbicki said. “After the feasibility study, it was determined that this is a viable project.”
Engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff was commissioned to conduct the study, and it was paid for by a combination of public and private enterprises.
“That money was raised through ... the Manchester airport, Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, the Town of Bedford, and [others],” Izbicki said.
This was followed by a second study, which cost $125,000 and was conducted by engineering firm TranSystems.
“We went into the second study, which was the more in-depth, detailed study. [It was] like the conceptual design type of study,” Izbicki said.
This time, Izbicki said, the funds were entirely raised from private sources.
The most recent study was released in December 2014. Dubbed the NH Capitol Corridor Study, it was performed by a third engineering firm — URS — and cost about $4.7 million, according to Izbicki. He characterized the study as an “alternative analysis study” that accomplished a number things.
“That [study was] to determine, ‘Is rail the best option for further engineering and construction grants?’” Izbicki said.
It looked at a number of alternative options like stretching the rail corridor to Concord or throwing out the whole train system in favor of expanded bus lanes. Ultimately, the consultants concluded that rail to Manchester was not only an economic boon to the state by creating an estimated 5,600 jobs by 2030, but the construction would be likely aided by federal grants.
The project would cost a total of $246 million to build, but after federal grants and the contribution from Massachusetts, New Hampshire would be on the hook for $72 million. After it’s built, the system would have a net operating cost of $1 million each year. More than 3,000 people would ride it every day with about 650,000 riders annually.
Paying for that marathon study was done mostly through federal grants. It was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and another $2.25 million from the Federal Railroad Administration.
“It’s the first time that’s ever happened on a commuter rail project in the history of this country, where the FTA and the FRA funded a study for the same project,” Izbicki said.
He said the remainder came from the state through a 20-percent match. 
What the Senate committee voted against funding to the tune of $4 million was not for another study. It was supposed to help the project move on to the next phase. 
“The next phase of this project is what they call ‘project development,’” Izbicki said. “We’re done with studies. We’ve studied this to death. And each study proves that this project should move forward.”
 
The next phase
Project development, or the preliminary engineering phase, moves the state out of the speculation, estimation and projection process and into making actual plans for building the rail system.
“To start doing surveys, to start doing the operational plans, to do track layouts, control layouts, pinpoint where the stations are gonna be exactly...,” Izbicki said. “It’s also to start applying for grants with the FTA and the FRA.”
Izbicki said he was disappointed the state chose not to fund project development but he’s confident he can raise the money from other sources. He hopes to raise about $2 million through private fundraising events before putting out a request for proposal. After awarding the bid, he plans to raise the remainder either from private sources again or from the state.
After preliminary engineering is complete, the next phases are final engineering and then construction.
In the meantime, the two rail-related bills signed by the governor aim to open up new ways to fund the infrastructure project, including the creation of the study committee that will look at enabling legislations to allow public-private partnerships. This way, the state can fund major projects with fewer taxpayer dollars and more buy-in from industry. Izbicki said the study committee is expected to be formed within the next few months and hopefully have a recommendation by the end of the year.
The other bill reorganized the Rail Transit Authority’s board by placing a governing board of nine members above the existing board, which has an unwieldy 28 members. The existing board will become an advisory board, a move they approved unanimously, according to Izbicki. The idea is to streamline the decision-making process and make the RTA more likely to receive grants. 
 
As seen in the July 23, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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