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Readying a NH commuter rail revival

Friday, January 11, 2013, 7:39pm
(NECN: Peter Howe, Nashua, N.H.) - But for a short trial in 1981, it’s been 46 years since passenger trains trundled from this bustling city on the Massachusetts border down to Boston. But now, for the first time in decades, there is not just serious talk but potentially seed funding for restoring train service not just to Nashua, but up through Manchester to Concord.

With the endorsement of a key legislative committee earlier this week, a newly elected roster of Executive Council members backed by a new pro-rail governor appears poised to approve spending $1.9 million on a thorough study of potential ridership on a Boston-Lowell-Nashua-Manchester-Concord train service.

"It's important for the future of not only Nashua, but New Hampshire to have that connection," Brian McCarthy, president of the Nashua Board of Aldermen, said in an interview Friday. Most aldermen, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, and many other city leaders in Nashua are wildly enthusiastic about bringing back rail access.

"Nashua is the only community of its size and its proximity to Boston not to have service to Boston by rail," McCarthy said. "If we were on the other side of the state line, we would have had it 30 years ago."

The state’s already identified a railside location at 25 Crown Street where it would like to develop a $6 million park-and-ride lot and new train station.

Nashua Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Chris Williams said, "We see rail as probably the biggest potential economic development tool for Nashua's future."

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority now operates frequent service from Boston to Lowell, and that line continues past Lowell through Chelmsford, Dunstable, and Tyngsborough to Nashua, Manchester and Concord, with a short gap between the coal-fired power plant in Bow and Concord where there is still a right-of-way. It’s estimated it would cost around $200 million to $300 million to rebuild the freight line for 79 m.p.h. operation that would make a Concord-to-Boston run around 90 minutes.

And there's already talk of building a bridge across the Merrimack River to add direct access to Manchester Airport.

"Using rail to get to reliever airports has become important in many other places around the country," McCarthy said.

Williams noted that current counts show about 1,000 vehicles with New Hampshire license plates every weekday at the Lowell and North Billerica MBTA commuter rail stops, indicating a solid base of Granite State residents who want rail access. Beyond that, he stresses this would be far more than a ride to Boston.

"We see a lot of back-and-forth commuting down to Massachusetts, but also back from Massachusetts towards New Hampshire where Massachusetts residents are taking jobs, very good jobs, up here in the Nashua area," Williams said.

Past members of the Executive Council – a Colonial-era body that retains unusually strong powers over spending and appointments in New Hampshire – have been hostile to rail service, but November’s elections appear to have brought in more pro-rail Democrats and a new governor, Maggie Hassan, behind investigating rail service.

"Elections shuffle the cards all the time, and given the current composition of the Council," Williams said, "we're very optimistic that this feasibility study will get its final approval next month."

There is some precedent for the MBTA running interstate service: Rhode Island’s funding for its recent extension of the Providence line to serve T. F. Green International Airport in Warwick and Wickford Junction. Current estimates are New Hampshire might have to kick in $10 million to $12 million annually to support a Lowell line extension into the Granite State.

Worth noting: Amtrak’s Boston-to-Maine Downeaster makes stops in Dover, Durham, and Exeter, N.H., and keeps setting new ridership records year after year, one more indication a rail alternative to slogging down Interstate 93 or Route 3 might have appeal to many in New Hampshire.

With videographer Nik Saragosa.
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