NH considers rail expansion but lacks data

The Amtrak Downeaster passenger train is seen traveling through Portland last December. Communities in New Hampshire are wondering whether they are missing opportunity by not having similar rail service.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
The Amtrak Downeaster passenger train is seen traveling through Portland last December. Communities in New Hampshire are wondering whether they are missing opportunity by not having similar rail service. Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 20, 2012, at 5:53 a.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — The upgrade of passenger rail systems in Maine and elsewhere threatens to leave New Hampshire as an “economic black hole” bypassed by future development, according to one point of view at a business summit about whether commuter trains can return to Nashua and the Merrimack Valley.

But that wasn’t the only point of view.

“I do think the economic development returns (from rail) are overstated,” argued Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, who represented the skeptical end of the spectrum for the four-person panel. “Everybody who wants economic development for their entity, very few of them are willing to risk it themselves — the people of Nashua want the state to pay for a train system. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that deep down inside they are skeptical.”

“There are very significant benefits to commuter rail,” Arlinghaus said, “but I think they’re outweighed by the costs.”

It’s hard to know if they’re outweighed by the costs, however, because the Executive Council rejected a $3.2 million federal grant to do an engineering study that would provide the data.

This lack of hard evidence was a recurring point of irritation in the two-hour conference, which drew an overflow crowd of transportation engineers, public planners and business folk to the Grappone Conference Center.

After the conference, Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau said the city was working to see if it could get the study done without the state. The grant required a $400,000 match in local funding, which was the reason the Executive Council voted 3-2 not to participate.

Many Nashua officials argue the line improvements also could boost freight service and make it easier to attract and keep business.

“Freight is the part of this that nobody talks about,” Lozeau said.

Manchester Chamber of Commerce President Robin Comstock agreed that critics underestimated the benefits.

“Revenue is not equivalent to passenger count. There is a component impact in jobs, (development of) the surrounding economic zones,” Comstock said.

The conference on Monday was held to discuss the feasibility and future of a “capital rail corridor,” carrying people from Lowell, Mass., north through Nashua to the Manchester airport and perhaps as far as Concord. It was held by the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, which has taken no position on the issue because its members are split, said BIA President Jim Roche.

Everyone agrees that returning passenger rail to the lines along the Merrimack River — where, save for an 18-month test that ended in 1981, hasn’t existed for almost five decades — would be expensive.

The most recent figures indicate that it would cost many tens of millions of dollars to extend the most up-to-date rail service, known as class 4, from the end of MBTA commuter rail service in Lowell, Mass., to Nashua — including the cost of building a station, upgrading lines, creating computerized switching systems and the like. Extending it to Concord would cost at least four times as much, upwards of $300 million.

Direct annual operating subsidies would probably run over $6 million a year.

“Our roads, our airports, our bus systems, they’re all subsidized,” said state Rep. Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, chair of the House Transportation Committee, who argued that the expensive needs of other transportation infrastructure made it infeasible to create commuter rail. “The problem with rail is there is no funding mechanism that is around for us to tap into, like we have for highway systems with the highway trust fund.”

The rail advocates on the panel — Peter Burling, former chair of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, and Jay Minkarah, Manchester economic development director — argued that the success of the Amtrak Nor’easter service from Boston to Portland, Maine, and a resurgence of interest in living and working in urban areas has changed the economic calculus of passenger rail.

Minkarah noted that the Portland service carries more than 500,000 people a year and is being extended to Brunswick, Maine. It is, he said, far longer than the Capital Corridor would be, and has less population and business density along its route.

He said some 250 “transit-related” housing and business developments were being developed throughout the MBTA rail system in eastern Massachusetts, and that they had “effectively increased the amount of developable area” in a location by reducing the need for more parking and making it feasible for more people to flow in and out.

“The states around us, along with the province of Quebec, are committed to improving their rail infrastructure because they see it as an essential component of their long-terms plan for growth,” Burling argued.

He said that in particular, Manchester airport would benefit from a rail link, noting that the MBTA has expanded service to T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., which is about the size of Manchester airport.

One thing that Monday’s discussion demonstrated is that pretty much everybody likes trains, no matter their opinion on commuter rail financing. Arlinghaus, for example, talked about riding the T with his son even when they had nowhere to go, just because it’s fun.

(c)2012 The Telegraph (Nashua, N.H.)

Visit The Telegraph (Nashua, N.H.) at www.nashuatelegraph.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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