For Extending Commuter Rail To N.H., Money Still The Biggest Question

Jan 14, 2015

In her inaugural address last week, Governor Maggie Hassan made the push for extending commuter rail from Boston to Nashua and Manchester.

"We must find a consensus way forward on rail that will build on our many advantages and help set the stage for a new generation of economic growth by keeping more of our young people right here in the Granite State," Hassan said. 

Discussion about bringing commuter rail to New Hampshire has been going on for years, but this past November, a new study outlined some of the specific costs.

Running a commuter line from Boston to Manchester would cost $246 million, according to preliminary estimates.

Thomas Mahon is chairman of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

He joins Morning Edition to talk about where we stand with commuter rail.

What’s your reaction to what the governor said in her inaugural address?

I’m quite gratified that she made it a centerpiece of her presentation and her speech. And I think she said it in the correct context of economic development, the attraction of young people to the state, and boosting the economy.

This past November, your organization released the results of a $3.7 million study looking at the feasibility of bringing commuter rail to New Hampshire.

Specifically, the study focused on the so-called Capitol Rail Corridor.

What did we learn from that study when it comes to cost, passengers, and feasibility?

The study estimates that there will be 2,500 to 2,600 new rail riders (daily). They didn’t count people who already use the rail system to commute by driving down to Lowell. Economic costs at this point are an estimate. We haven’t seen all the data that goes into that. We’ve been given what they call an order of magnitude estimate, which is a preliminary assessment of the issue.

What’s the timeline on the completed study being in?

We should have that in a couple of weeks. I’m hoping maybe by the end of next week.

So some of those numbers could change, then?

Yes. We intend to survey and review the entire report as a board in preparation for making a recommendation.

Did the study look at any different options? Say, extending to Nashua and not Manchester, or to Nashua and Manchester, but not Concord? Is there a plan that makes most sense?

Right now, the Manchester option is the one that provides the best bang for the buck, if you will. It’s the one that provides the most economic development opportunities, the most job opportunities, and the most economic improvement activity for the investment.

But even in that best case scenario, the rail plan would not pay for itself in terms of passengers. How do you make the case for rail if it can’t for itself? Why do it?

It’s an investment in the state of New Hampshire. It’s an investment in the people of New Hampshire. It’s an investment in the businesses of New Hampshire and the development that will be there. The economic and financial impacts of that would be significant. If you look at other places that have instituted commuter rail, you can see that there’s a high level of activity around the stations. There’s redevelopment and development in those areas. It would mean 5,600 jobs over the first ten years and then 1,700 jobs a year thereafter.

So the bottom line is the money for this has to come from somewhere. What has to happen to make rail a reality?

We have to come up with a recommendation in terms of a preferred alternative. Then we have to get the money to do the project engineering phase. Part of that project engineering phase will take a detailed look at the financial mechanisms that we’ll need to use to fund, operate and maintain it. There are some programs at the federal level for 50 percent participation. The rest of the participation will have to come from other sources.