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New Study Shows Boston to Manchester, N.H., Rail Service Would Cost $782M to Build

Wed March 01, 2023 - Northeast Edition #6
New Hampshire Union Leader

Station locations and routing are illustrative. Light blue lines denote proposed new corridors, dark blue lines denote existing Amtrak service, with the route discussed on this page highlighted in yellow. (Map courtesy of Amtrak)
Station locations and routing are illustrative. Light blue lines denote proposed new corridors, dark blue lines denote existing Amtrak service, with the route discussed on this page highlighted in yellow. (Map courtesy of Amtrak)

Restoring commuter rail service from Boston through Manchester, N.H., would cost $782 million to build and $17 million a year to operate, according to a new draft study done for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT).

Claiming fares could cover 82 percent of that operating budget, the 80-page consultant's report concludes, and the annual state taxpayer subsidy could be as low as $200,000 and as high as $3.5 million, depending on how people many use the service.

According to a Feb. 26 news story in the New Hampshire Union Leader, the report assumes host communities would spend up to $63 million to build new train stations south of Granite Street in Manchester, as well as a layover train facility, and a train station on Crown Street near downtown Nashua.

Both cities would spend about $200,000 annually to run those facilities, the report read.

In addition, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport would operate and maintain a third train station nearby in Bedford, N.H.

NHDOT would pay to build and run the southernmost train station next to the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, close to the Massachusetts border, according to the Union Leader.

"The proposed schedule in southern New Hampshire includes 16 trips in each direction on weekdays – and roughly half that number on weekends and holidays — with an estimated travel time between Manchester and Boston North Station of one hour, 25 minutes to one hour, 30 minutes," according to the study done by AECOM Technical Services of Manchester.

New Hampshire's share of construction costs would be up to $185 million, while the state of Massachusetts would pay for about $125 million in upgrades to the 9.5-mi.-length of tracks from Lowell to Nashua.

Federal grants would cover at least 55 percent of all construction costs, the report said.

Four Years Needed for Ridership to Mature

The Union Leader obtained a copy of the study that New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Bill Cass delivered to the state Executive Council, Gov. Chris Sununu, and legislative leaders in February.

It concludes that once rail service is opened in 2030, four years would be needed for ridership to reach full levels due to the impact of COVID-19.

In response to the pandemic, the number of citizens taking trains to work across the United States dropped dramatically as more Americans worked from home. For example, there are only 58 percent as many people taking the train from Lowell, Mass., to Boston every day as did back in 2018.

The study promotes a "medium pandemic impact" scenario that 75 percent of riders would end up taking the Boston-Manchester train compared to the level that had been expected prior to COVID-19.

If this proves to be the case, New Hampshire's taxpayer cost to run the service would start at $14 million in 2031 but drop to $200,000 by 2034.

In the event the ridership has a "high pandemic impact," then those taking the train will only be 58 percent of those levels expected prior to COVID-19.

This would mean the cost to run the rail service would start at $17 million in the first year before dropping to $3.5 million by 2035, the study noted.

Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, and a longtime opponent of the project, said the construction price tag has gotten much higher than earlier studies showed.

"I was expecting a financial boondoggle and that is exactly [what] the plan has come up with in my view," Wheeler said.

He said Nashua taxpayers would have to finance at least $21 million in station construction costs.

"I think people are going to get sticker shock when they realize how much this will cost them in higher property taxes," Wheeler said.

Legislative Backers Still Reviewing Report

Nashua and Manchester mayors, majorities on their town councils, and business leaders are prominent supporters of the project. In fact, officials in both cities are considering creating tax increment financing districts to help pay for the construction work.

A spokesperson for New Hampshire Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester told the Union Leader that the senator had not seen the report but remains a strong "advocate" for it.

House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm of Manchester, who also has supported the project in the past, declined comment until he had reviewed the entire report.

However, Drew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, said the ridership estimates were wildly optimistic.

"Who thinks it's a good idea to spend $800 million to build commuter rail from a sparsely populated state to a shrinking city when the number of people who say they want to make a daily commute is also shrinking?" he asked rhetorically.

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