By Alex Lippa
---- — PLAISTOW — A major hurdle to bringing the commuter rail to Southern New Hampshire could be cleared this week.
The Executive Council will decide whether to grant $658,316 for a feasibility study to look at extending commuter rail into Plaistow.
“This is the first major step in whether or not the commuter rail is even feasible to pursue,” Selectman Daniel Poliquin said. “We want to do whatever we can in order to get the people more information about this.”
The money is the first portion of an $10.4 million Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant, specifically for the Plaistow MBTA project. All funds would be provided by the Federal Transit Administration.
The Executive Council will meet tomorrow to discuss the study and Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald is optimistic it will be approved.
“I believe the project has already been vetted by the Department of Transportation and CMAQ committee, and has been recognized as one of the most innovative and most significant projects they would be evaluating,” he said. “I have every confidence that our colleagues will see its merit.”
If it does pass, the study could begin in just a matter of weeks.
“The firm that was selected is ready to go as soon as the governor’s council approves the contract,” said Mark Sanborn, federal liaison at the state Department of Transportation.
The study will be done by HDR Engineering in Boston. They were selected by the DOT last year.
The firm will do an environmental assessment of sites for a layover facility and a station platform. The study also would include estimates of the operating cost and forecast ridership.
The study has been pushed back several times in the last year, most notably due to issues raised by Atkinson. Residents and officials had concerns about the Westville Homes site on Blossom Road being considered as a potential site. The site is located on the border of Atkinson and Plaistow.
The two towns agreed in January to drop that site from consideration.
The state said the towns had to agree to the parameters of the study before any money would be allocated.
Plaistow officials objected to another site — the Penn Box property at 144 Main St. — being considered. It, too, was dropped.
A likely site for the station would be the park-and-ride lot on Westville Road. Several possibilities remain for the layover station.
“That’s the biggest contention right now,” Poliquin said. “I would think there could be a place just south of the border in Haverhill for the layover station.”
The study should take about 18 months to complete. After that, town officials would decide whether there was a site worth bringing before voters.
In a nonbinding referendum in 2012, residents overwhelmingly rejected a layover station in Plaistow, 619-308.
“In my time speaking with different citizens, it’s amazing how many people are in favor of a rail station,” Poliquin said. “Unfortunately, you only hear from the naysayers.”
Fitzgerald said it is important for voters to realize the benefits of this study.
“This project represents extraordinary opportunities to capitalize on existing infrastructure that would be unique to this rail project,” he said. “We will have a large number of discussions with voters, and I want people to continue to keep an open mind and be prepared to learn and understand things that are different than they currently understand.”