Commuter Rail: Drilling down on demand, cost and quality of life

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Rail town hall panel, from left, Scott Merrick- Amy Klobuchar for President campaign staff, Adria Bagshaw of W. H. Bagshaw, Nashua, E. J. Powers of New Hampshire Business for Rail Expansion, Michael Decelle, Dean, UNH-Manchester, Mayor Joyce Craig, Manchester, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Mike Smith, Ironworkers Union, Rep. Joshua Query, Manchester, Peter Macone, co-owner Republic Cafe and Campo Enoteca. Photo/Kathy Staub

MANCHESTER, NH — Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was at UNH-Manchester on April 19  for a town hall event on Passenger Rail. Klobuchar was there to promote her ambitious  infrastructure proposal which is part of her Presidential campaign platform. Her plan includes new funding for roads, bridges, rail, schools, and rural broadband. It builds on previous proposals which enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington.

The event was moderated by Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig who emphasized the importance of rail transit as a critical component needed to bring people and businesses to the city. She said that it is especially important for attracting a young workforce and essential to economic development in the millyard.

UNH Manchester Dean Michael Decelle said that rail service is critical to the growth of the University. “Right now we are at 50 percent capacity for students and about 120 percent capacity for parking. If we want to give our students a true urban campus experience, public transportation is a necessity.”

NH Passenger rail: A brief history

Over the years there has been constant talk of re-establishing passenger rail service in the Merrimack Valley. In 1967 the last B&M passenger train left the station in Manchester’s millyard. Except for a brief revival in 1980,  Manchester has been without passenger rail service ever since. With a population of over 500,000 people, southern NH is the largest metropolitan area in New England that doesn’t have any passenger or commuter rail service.

In 2007 the NH legislature created the now defunct NH Rail Transit Authority. In conjunction with the NH DOT, they identified the New Hampshire Capitol Corridor as the top priority for passenger rail in the state. The hope was that this would later be integrated into a larger more ambitious project for high-speed rail service connecting Boston and Montreal.

Capitol Corridor Project

In 2014 the NH DOT released a detailed analysis of proposed options for bringing rail to the NH Capitol Corridor.  The preferred first step would be to extend the existing Boston-Lowell commuter rail line to Nashua and Manchester. A future project would extend the line to Concord. The Manchester Regional Commuter Rail line would run 8 round trips between Manchester and Boston and 17 to Nashua.

The total cost estimate for the project in 2014 was $246 million. The scope of the project would include replacing the tracks, building sidings, construction of stations and crossings,  and upgrading bridges. Construction was expected to take four years.

Four years ago the MBTA was willing to provide the train cars and a locomotive, and waive the fees for the track rights.  Not only would ridership be higher, it would relieve traffic on both the Route 3 and I-93 corridors, and help them achieve their environmental goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions due to traffic by 25 percent. According to Patrick Herlihy, Director of Aeronautics, Rail and Transit for the NH Department of Transportation, the state would need to reopen negotiations with Massachusetts to see if that is still a viable part of the plan.  

The estimated cost to New Hampshire after federal grants and the MBTA contributions of rolling stock and tracking rights would have been in the neighborhood of $72 million. The portion of the project that is not covered by federal grants would be bonded. The annual debt service on those bonds is estimated at $6 million per year and $1 million of the operational and maintenance costs would not be covered by fares and federal transportation grants. It is unclear how the remaining $7 million per year would be funded.

Political Football

The next step is the completion of the project development and engineering phase, which includes the environmental assessment, engineering plans, the creation of a detailed financial plan, and drafting potential third-party agreements with the MBTA. According to Herlihy the original Capitol Corridor Rail Study produced broad ballpark figures for the costs of the project. This next phase would drill down on the costs and come up with actual cost estimates for construction, land acquisition, and related expenses.  Funding for it would come out of the $2.5 million that the state receives annually from the Federal Transit Administration for work related to public transportation in the Greater Boston metro area.

Funding for this phase of the project has become something of a political football. In 2014 Governor Maggie Hassan put the funds for this next step in the state’s 10-year transportation plan. In 2016 it was removed by the Republican-controlled NH House. In August of 2017 it was added back into the 10-year plan by the Executive Council. Governor Sununu used the rail project as a lure  when pitching the state’s bid for the Amazon headquarters. By January New Hampshire was no longer in the running for the Amazon project and in March an unsuccessful attempt was made by the NH House to remove if from the the plan, but then in May, the NH Senate voted it out.

Earlier this year the new Democratically-controlled NH Senate put it back into the 10-year transportation plan. SB 241 is currently in the House Public Works and Highways Committee. Manchester State Representative Joshua Query, who participated in the discussion with Klobuchar and sits on that committee, is optimistic that it will receive a positive recommendation from them. It will also need to go through the finance committee before it passes through the NH House and arrives on the desk of Governor Sununu.

Commuter demand for rail

It is estimated that over 2 million people commute to work in Boston, most of them in cars. Recently it was named the most traffic congested city in the United States by INRIX. It was the only U.S. city that made the world’s top 10. About 80,000 of those commuters are coming from NH. People leaving Boston by car and heading north on I-93 during afternoon rush hour can expect their speed to top out at about 23 mph.

Representative Query is one of those people. He commutes by car to his job as a ceramics instructor at the Brookline Arts Center in Massachusetts. During most of the year his commute is during off hours, but during the summer he teaches in the summer camp which means he needs to leave at 5 a.m. to be there by 7 a.m.

The state of New Hampshire has spent significant money to help alleviate congestion for drivers. The multi-year project to widen I-93 cost $770.5 million. Debt service of $20 million per year between 2019-2025 will be paid with federal funds and $25 million per year between 2026-2034 will be paid for with revenues from the state gas tax. The estimated cost for widening the Everett Turnpike is $146 million and will be paid for with toll revenues.

About 10,000 people from New Hampshire towns along the proposed rail line commute to work in places with stops on the Lowell-Boston Commuter Rail Line. The NH rail study estimated that about 3,000 people from NH would ride the train on a daily basis. Of those, 270 would board at the downtown Manchester Station proposed for Granite Street and an additional 280 would get on at the Bedford/ Manchester Airport stop.




Commuters by town to places with stops on the Lowell-Boston Commuter Line. US Census data 2015

Mena daSilva-Clark has been driving to her job at Boston University since 1987. The school allows flexibility in her schedule so she can avoid peak commuter traffic, but she still spends at least two hours in the car each way. “Everyday I see the same cars.” She used to carpool with a colleague who retired, now she relies on audio books to alleviate the tedium. “I’m listening to Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming.” It is 19 hours so it should last me about a week.”

Mena daSilva-Clark’s morning commuter view. Courtesy Photo

The worst part of the commute for her is the accidents. It seems like there is an accident every day. The area around Londonderry is a particular hotspot. She is also concerned about new projects that could add more traffic. In particular, the 350 apartments and condominiums at Tuscan Village in Salem, the 1,400 residential units planned for Woodmont Commons in Londonderry, and the new casino opening in Everett, Mass., in June. In fact, a study released in 2016 anticipates that by 2030 117,000 more people will be commuting to Boston and they expect to see 80,000 additional vehicles on the road.  

The worst commutes daSilva-Clark can remember were during the Storm of the Century blizzard in 1993 when she spent five hours in the car trying to get home. “It was a Friday afternoon and they let everyone out of work early. It was slow going the whole way and I was afraid I would run out of gas,” daSilva-Clark said. More recently the gas fires in Lawrence and Andover last year created havoc on the highway as people were evacuating the cities at the same time end of day commuters were making their way home.

She would definitely take a train from Manchester. “They have been talking about commuter rail for 20 years or more. I’d like to see it in my lifetime. Even after I am retired I would like to be able to take the train into the city to visit.”

Case study: Nashua

The City of Nashua has been very actively pursuing passenger rail for many years. In addition to advocating for the NH Capitol Corridor Rail project, they have been in talks with the Boston Surface Railroad Company which would run a train from Bedford, NH, at the Manchester Airport  to Worcester, MA, and Providence, RI. Commuters would be able to transfer at the Lowell rail station to the Boston line.

Elise McDonald, recovering “super-commuter.” Courtesy Photo

More than 4,000 Nashua residents commute to work in places along the existing Boston-Lowell commuter line. Until recently Elise MacDonald was one of them. When her music venue, Studio 99,  was unable to sustain itself during the recession, she took a position at the Berklee College of Music. For five years she commuted from Nashua to downtown Boston.

She described herself as a “super-commuter,” adding, “I had a fancy $200 backpack so I could carry everything I could possibly need during that 2 ½ hour commute.”  For a while she took the train from Lowell, but she found the commute so wearying that she started renting a room in Boston from a friend. This reduced her commuting from 10 trips per week to 6. She says that this is not unusual.  Lowell doesn’t allow overnight parking, so she switched to taking the train from Lawrence where she could use the garage. Eventually she switched to the bus.

Every day 2,000 riders board buses in Concord, Manchester, Nashua or one of the park-and-rides.  The bus allows people to relax or begin their workday during the commute rather than focusing on driving. The State of New Hampshire subsidizes the bus service with about $600,000 a year of federal transit money. They are also planning to spend $12 million to replace the current fleet of buses.

Sadly, the bus didn’t make her commute time significantly shorter, when traffic got jammed up, the ride was  just as long as by car. Having commuter rail directly from Nashua would have saved her about 1 ½ hours of commute time per day. “That’s about 375 hours a year that I could have been doing something else,” she says.  In the end she decided to switch careers and find a job in Nashua. Her doctor helped her make the decision. Commuting five hours a day and spending the work day sitting at a desk wasn’t good for her. These days she walks to her job at Southern NH Services in Nashua’s millyard. She arrives relaxed and ready for whatever the day brings.

MacDonald ended up taking a $17,000 reduction in pay, but since she is no longer paying for bus and train fares or spending $300 a month to rent a room, it was worth it. The biggest benefit is the added time. “We get to eat at home more often because I have time to shop and cook, and I have more time to get involved in the community.”

In 2014, during the middle of her time commuting,  MacDonald started a Facebook group called Citizens for NH Capital Corridor Passenger Rail. “Whenever I attended meetings about rail I found that I was the only person there who actually was a commuter. And that makes sense because if the meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. you either are not home yet or you are too dog-tired to go.” According to MacDonald the group of more than 500 members is a way to elevate the voices of the people who are most impacted by lack of access to a commuter rail system. She welcomes people to join the conversation.

Comparative Costs of Commuting

ServiceLocationMonthly PassParking
MBTA Commuter RailLowell to No. Station

Zone 6

$318$55 monthly
Haverhill to No. Station

Zone 7

$336$35 monthly
Newburyport to No. Station

Zone 8

$363$70 monthly
Boston ExpressManchester, Londonderry,

Nashua to So. Station

Drive to Boston Park and RideNew Hampshire to

Sullivan Square

$84.50$6 per day
Drive to BostonNew Hampshire

Downtown Boston

$150-500 monthly

Much has been made of New Hampshire’s status as one of the oldest states in the country and the fact that young workers are not staying in the state. Eli Maroney graduated from UNH in 2016 with a degree in journalism. He got a job at NBC Boston working on the web desk. He’d leave Manchester at 4 a.m. to be there by 5 a.m. Because he worked such odd hours traffic congestion wasn’t a big concern.

Eli Maroney, in exile from NH due to Boston commute.

When he switched to a 9-to-5 job at Bose Corporation in Framingham the commute from Manchester became impossible. Because of the traffic congestion he could never be sure when he would get there, or if he would get there at all. “I almost got into an accident every single time,” Maroney said. Eventually he moved to the Boston area. He still has to drive because the train station in Framingham is 20 minutes from his workplace, but the commute is much shorter.

According to  Maroney, access to the Boston job market is really important for young college graduates who are  beginning their careers. Several of his friends from UNH stayed in Dover after graduation and commuted to work on Amtrak’s Downeaster. “UNH has such great programs in chemistry and computer science, and all the good paying jobs in high tech, biotech, and pharmaceuticals are in Massachusetts.”

At the April town hall Peter Macone, co-owner of Republic Cafe and Campo Enoteca restaurants, talked about one of his regular customers who is planning to move out of the city. His wife commutes to work in Boston so they are relocating to Exeter where she can take Amtrak’s Downeaster  to the city.

The Downeaster travels between, Boston and Brunswick, Maine, with stops in New Hampshire at Dover, Durham, and Exeter. Last year the Downeaster had more that 500,000 riders. Dover had 59,000 boardings, Durham had 58,000 boardings, and Exeter had 89,000 boardings.

Not all the riders will be heading south for work. According to EJ Powers of the NH Business for Rail Expansion Coalition an estimated 500-600 people travel from Massachusetts to work in the millyard.  Several people on the panel talked about how people in their 20s are excited to live in Boston. A commuter rail connection would allow them to continue to live in the city but work in Manchester. Once they reach their 30s they might be more inclined to move to Manchester to be closer to their work.

Maroney agrees. He thinks that expanding commuter rail to Manchester would open up lots of opportunities for young professionals who work in Boston to buy homes in Manchester, where it is more affordable.

Would he consider it? “New Hampshire is a great place to live. It has mountains and beaches, arts and culture, and Boston is 50 miles away. If I could find a job that pays as well as my current position, I would definitely want to move back.”