Earlier this year, Gray Chynoweth, CEO of Manchester high-tech company Dyn, asked a group of early career professionals at The Startup Institute in Boston how many of them would consider commuting to Manchester for work.
“I think it was like three out of 50 raised their hand,” he said.
Off the cuff, he asked them how many would commute to southern New Hampshire if there were a convenient commuter rail option.
This time, about 35 hands went up.
Interest in creating a passenger rail system from southern New Hampshire to Boston has been bubbling up for years, but stakeholders are more optimistic now than ever that it could turn into a reality.
The $3.7 million Capitol Corridor study is halfway complete this month. On March 5 consultants working for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation announced their most specific set of extended options for the 73 miles between Boston and Concord to date at a public scoping meeting at the DOT in Concord.
“It feels like people who advocate for it are more excited now about the likelihood of us actually realizing rail than they have been,” said Will Craig, Manchester’s economic development coordinator, at the meeting. “It sounds like people are optimistic, and there were times when people thought this project was always out of reach. I don’t think that’s the feeling anymore.”
In a best-case scenario Manchester, Nashua and Concord (one, or up to all three cities) will be connected by rail to Lowell and Boston by 2020 — but as with any major government project, the price tag could stall or halt that outcome.
Consultants, cities tout benefits
At the scoping meeting consultants described a list of benefits and outcomes that have helped drive their decisions on which options to study. According to project manager Kenneth Kinney, the commuter rail would attract about 3,100 passengers. Relieving congestion on the southern end of the corridor would improve access to higher-paying jobs in Boston, he said at the meeting. While that may seem like a loss for the Granite State, “We like to say commute from New Hampshire and bring money back to New Hampshire,” Kinney said at the March 5 meeting.
Perhaps even more enticing to local employers, passenger rail could attract young, highly educated professionals to state’s job market. That’s important to city authorities who are in conversation with local companies.
“If you talk to high-tech companies in our millyard, they are sure they could get people to come up here every day,” Craig said in a phone interview.
Chris Williams, Nashua Chamber of Commerce director, hears the same thing. The chamber has been pushing the idea of rail for eight years, he said in a phone interview, and every week executives hoping to see passenger rail come up to Nashua remind him how important it is to attract talent from the Merrimack Valley.
“Our businesses … care very, very deeply about this issue,” Williams said in a phone interview. “It’s one of the the single biggest economic development opportunities for the state.”
Concord Chamber of Commerce Director Tim Sink and Deputy City Manager Carlos Baia have experienced the same concerns.
“One of the common concern for CEOs — especially of high-tech, medical arts, science industries — is the notion of trying to get that qualified employee base from the south,” Baia said in a phone interview.
A major focus for consultants was also the idea that downtown stations promote environmentally friendly, transit-oriented development in New Hampshire that helps mitigate sprawl. Rail stations would promote a desire for downtown living options, Kinney said at the meeting.
Concord has already seen movement in that direction, Baia said in a phone interview. Last summer, the city’s first market-rate residential development with 25 units opened up on Main Street, and the city council has been offering financial incentives to facilitate market-rate housing downtown for 10 years.
“These are folks who want to be in a vibrant living location, where they can go downstairs to eat in a cafe, and go shopping nearby. I believe that a train service downtown would add to that experience,” Baia said in a phone interview.
In Nashua, developers of the Cotton Mill Square conducted a market analysis that inspired them to create the 109-apartment development that will open this spring.
It’s unclear how far north a commuter rail line connecting New Hampshire to an existing rail line would run. While developers have plans for options all the way to Concord, it could stop in Manchester or at the very least south Nashua.
“We have three levels of investment, three levels of service,” Kinney said at the meeting. “...The Nashua minimum refers to the lowest-cost rail option we could implement.”
Consultants have narrowed down station location options to six and say a combination of park-and-ride and walkable downtown stops would attract the most passengers.
In Concord, the station would be at Stickney Avenue near the current bus station.
In downtown Manchester, Spring Street and Granite Street locations are in the running. Granite Street is particularly attractive because it’s close to the bus station. There’s only one viable option for a park-and-ride stop near the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, on Ray Wieczorek Avenue.
In Nashua, Crown Street is slated for the downtown location, and there are two park-and-ride-style options at Spit Brook Road near Exit 1 on Interstate 93, and another at the Pheasant Lane Mall.
Officials in Concord and Manchester said a rail that only reached Nashua would not be very useful to their cities. It wouldn’t inspire transit-based development, and it’s likely commuters would stick to their current mode of transportation. Even if rail came up to Manchester, Concord residents wouldn’t see much use.
“There would be pretty much very little benefit,” Baia said. “If it goes to Manchester, one could argue there might be some benefit, but it would be limited. If it comes down to hopping on bus to go to Manchester, then hopping on a train at Manchester, that doesn’t sound too convenient.”
Price tag predicament
Capitol Corridor consultants have been in conversation with members of the state government, but it’s too early to know whether the money to build the passenger rail will be made available. Even if the project wins funding at the state and local level, it won’t be able to move forward without getting about 50 percent of the capital costs from Washington — about $100 million.
That funding is competitive, and while the project isn’t a slam dunk, it’s in the ballgame, Kinney said at the meeting. A rail from Concord is slated to attract 3,100 riders, which makes it attractive to federal funders.
One of the project’s shortcomings is the impossibility of reaching high speeds. Trains will only run up to 75 miles an hour for sustained segments of the existing tracks they will be running on.
“When our great-great-grandfathers built this line, they very closely followed the Merrimack River, and the Merrimack River by no stretch of the imagination is straight,” engineering lead David Nelson said at the meeting. “...To some extent this is sort of back to the future. We’re in the same time frame as back in the 1950s, and the ’40s and the ’20s.”
It could hurt the case for funding from Washington, but the cost-benefit of attempting a higher-speed rail wouldn’t justify the marginal costs, Kinney said.
Ultimately, snagging the funding will determine how far north the rail will go, if it happens at all.
“Costs go up as you go farther; political support may increase as it goes farther too,” Nelson said during an interview after the meeting. “How this all shakes out is something for the people of New Hampshire to figure out.”
In the next couple months, the consultants will be studying the economic feasibility of the project, sharing results with policy-makers this fall.
City planners suspect that its results will be favorable.
“I think the report, once it comes out, will be able to show seminal findings rather than speculate what those are now,” Williams said. “But I will say I am confident that report is going to show a very good return on the state’s investment — for the communities it passes through, for the state itself, and the business community.”
As seen in the March 27, 2014 issue of the Hippo.