Capital Corridor Rail Study: Rail To Manchester a Good Deal, Concord Only So-So

Nov 21, 2014

MBTA Commuter Rail in Ashland, MA
Credit Mass. Office of Travel & Tourism Via Flickr CC

According to the latest study of the so-called Capital Rail Corridor released last night by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority running commuter rail from Manchester to Boston would cost $246 million dollars, and attract at least 650,000 riders per year.

Many in a standing-room-only audience in Nashua were ready to forge ahead with expanding train service, but the study will likely face a chillier reception in other parts of the state.

The rail corridor study evaluated a number of options: extending rail to Concord, to Manchester or just to Nashua. Any of those options tend to be pretty easy to sell in Southern New Hampshire.

“Seven million dollars a year? That’s peanuts for the kind of benefits this will bring,” said Mark Richardson of Bedford, who showed up at the public forum to urge action, “We’ve got to stop sitting on the pot and make these kinds of investments now.”

Of the three options, the extension to Nashua was really designed to answer a frequently asked question “what is the least expensive rail option you could do that made some sense, reasonable sense from the standpoint of transportation logic,” explained Ken Kinney with the consulting firm the URS Corporation.

Kinney added that the cheapest option may not be the best. The study suggests the state will get the best bang for its buck by expanding past Nashua to Manchester. That would add nearly 2,000 passengers a day.

“In terms of daily boardings – new boardings – the Manchester regional is at about 2,600 which is far higher than any of the others,” he explains.

Extend rail any further north, though, and the price tag goes up fast. Besides the hundreds of millions in capital costs, which backers presume would be defrayed by money from Washington, it would cost the state about $10 per rider per year to maintain service up to Manchester. Going to Concord could cost over $60 a head.

Which gets to the nut of the question. “In the environment we’re facing in the state, you’re not going to get any state funding,” asserted Nashua Alderman Ken Siegel.

Car registrations and gas taxes largely pay for highways, but rail has to rely on fares and fares alone. The consultants acknowledge that the ticket box would likely only pay for half to two-thirds of the annual cost of running the trains.
 

“None of these options are going to pay for themselves,” said Kinney.

He floated a number of possible funding sources, everything from using RGGI proceeds, to lottery dollars, to asking towns along the corridor to pony up some cash.

But ultimately the decision will lay in the hands of New Hampshire’s elected officials. Which is likely why Chris Williams, Chairman of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, took advantage of an audience populated with several state representatives and three out of five executive councilors, to make a pitch.

“My question for the elected officials up in Concord is are you willing to sit down and have a reasonable valid conversation about how we can make sure that the investment is put into this project so that we can see the reward that we see in this study,” asked Williams to applause from the crowd.

The study talked about more than 5,000 new permanent jobs sprouting up along-side the capital rail corridor, and hundreds of housing until being developed close to rail stations. The trick is that all of that will be concentrated in only a few towns, whereas the whole state could be asked to pay for the new tracks.

Executive councilor-elect, Dave Wheeler from Milford, predicts that now that the conversation is turning to who will pay for rail and how, it’s going to get tougher.

“Will people in Colebrook support a train in Nashua? Will people in Keene support a train in Nashua? Will Nashua step forward and add $5 to the registration fee for every vehicle in Nashua to have the local match part of the federal money?” Wheeler asked, “The rub really comes when you try to fund this.”

The next step for this project is indeed more funding. The New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority says it needs another $4 million dollars to start the preliminary engineering and financial planning work of project development.

Expect where the question of where that money comes from, be it the state’s coffers or somewhere else entirely, to be a subject of much debate in the coming months.