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Rail proposal rolls forward
Commuter rail to Manchester the best option, study says

02/12/15



More jobs, real estate development and more youth coming to and staying in the Granite State — the results of the recently completed two-year New Hampshire Capitol Corridor study show that those are the major benefits that would come from building the Manchester Regional Rail, a commuter rail that would run from Lowell, Mass., to Manchester. 

 
The basics
The results of the two-year New Hampshire Capitol Corridor Rail & Transit Alternatives Analysis was released on Feb. 3. The study, conducted by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and its Massachusetts counterpart, with funding from the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration, looked at the plausibility of constructing a railroad for the 73-mile stretch from Concord to Boston. 
The results show that the part of the project that would run from Lowell, Mass., to Manchester, with two stations in Nashua, one in downtown Manchester and one at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, would offer the biggest bang for the buck. The Manchester Regional Rail would cost approximately $245.6 million, though with infrastructure commitments from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and up to 50 percent in federal contributions, New Hampshire’s investment would be about $72 million. That number could be less, since it includes a $50 million contingency budget required by law. 
 
The youth factor
According to the study, more young and educated workers have been leaving the state than coming in. The rail could be a way to help retain them — and attract more, said Mike Izbicki, chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. Young professionals are attracted to areas such as Texas, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, all with large mass transit systems, he said.
“Kids got used to riding transit and not having a car. They are used to mass transit. The students coming out of school right now, the push to get their [driver’s] license isn’t like it was 20 to 30 years ago,” Izbicki said. 
Chris Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, can relate to the inability to attract youth. He attended graduate school in Boston and has many friends still living there who rely on mass transit. The reactions when he invites them to come skiing or hiking is: seriously?
“They always roll their eyes at me, and say, ‘Chris, we can’t get to you,’” he said. “We are at a competitive disadvantage compared to other suburbs around Boston, who can attract companies, and those companies in turn can offer mass transit for their employees.”
In the eyes of young professionals, he said, New Hampshire is barely on the map. 
“That’s largely due to the fact that young people in and around Boston can’t get to New Hampshire via passenger rail. In the eyes of young people, if you can’t get there, it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I think the passenger rail could be the single biggest tool in our kit for reversing the outmigration of young workers from New Hampshire.”
 
More mobility
It’s not just youth who need an easier way to get in and out of Boston. Izbicki said New Hampshire would be more attractive if people could easily get to Boston.
“We bring a passenger rail service to New Hampshire, and we build rails, buses and highway systems, and an airport that has real, international flights. Manchester doesn’t have international flights like other airports do. [With] a reliable passenger rail system, you are giving people choices,” Izbicki said. “Bad weather, they can take the train.”
Currently, commuters north of Lowell, Mass., have to rely on roadways, leading to congestion. According to the study, the average speed within 8 miles of Boston is 12 mph.
“There’s no one solution, but when you provide transportation options, you can solve a lot of issues,” Izbicki said, noting removing cars from the highways relieves congestion. “You’re actually keeping your roads in a state of good repair for a longer period time if you have a rail system that takes cars off the highway. The goal is to relieve congestion, bring young people to the state and make it more efficient to travel to Boston from New Hampshire.”
 
Rail opposition
Opponents to the proposed rail system say it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“It essentially boils down to the fact that it doesn’t deliver on what it promises. It is a white elephant, and depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, there are much cheaper and faster ways to accomplish it,” said Josh Elliott-Traficante, policy analyst for Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.
He said the rail will always require subsidies in construction and operating expenses, and the capital costs never cover the full cost, and taxpayers will bear the brunt of it.
“It’s almost reinventing the wheel. We have highways. Cars pay for themselves; rails don’t. It’s all about building this rail infrastructure for a small number of people. It’s not going to help with congestion,” Elliott-Traficante said.
He said there is nothing a train can accomplish that the bus service to Boston doesn’t already do, for a fraction of the cost, and the economic development component is “significantly overstated,” noting it is hard to say what job creation will look like. 
 
What’s next?
Izbicki says there has been some push back on capital and operating costs. State Sen. Bette Lansky is bringing forth public-private partnership legislation to be studied. Izbicki said some in opposition argue that we don’t subsidize public transportation but pointed to state projects like construction on Interstate 93 that is half from taxpayers, half from federal money.
In the coming months, the NHRTA will evaluate the findings of this report and begin working on a strategy for the critical project development phase. This will include a detailed financial plan and preparing applications for submission to the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Rail Administration, as well as final engineering plans.
According to a press release from the state Department of Transportation, if NHRTA can get the $4 million in funding that’s needed to conduct the project development phase, work could kick off within the next year. 
 
As seen in the February 12, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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