By Alex Lippa
---- — PLAISTOW — The state Department of Transportation listened to questions and concerns from residents last night, as it embarks on a year-long, $659,000 study to look at potentially bringing the commuter rail to New Hampshire.
“We want to start off this process by speaking to all of you and making sure that the information we’re looking at meets the needs of Plaistow and the surrounding communities,” said Mark Sanborn, federal liaison at NHDOT.
Funded through a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant, the study will examine locations and design concepts for a potential train station and layover facility in town. It will also analyze potential impacts on the community.
Ron O’Blenis, the project manager for HDR Engineering who will be conducting the study, said he has not yet begun to examine which sites are most feasible.
But two sites that were ruled out due to an agreement between Plaistow and Atkinson were the Penn Box site on Main Street, and the Westville Homes site on the border of Atkinson and Plaistow.
O’Blenis said all sites between the Haverhill station and Plaistow’s border with Newton would be considered in the study.
Sanborn also did not rule out a commuter rail station coming without a layover station being located in Plaistow.
“It is one of the alternatives that will be included in the study,” Sanborn said. “Another alternative will be a 'no-build' one, which is not to go forward with the project.”
Resident's questions about the study ranged from concerns about safety to parking, though their primary concern seemed to be that they would have a final say.
“If we are going to have this plan 'railroaded' in Plaistow,” said resident Linda Hemingway, “I think we need to have the final say.”
NHDOT representatives would not guarantee that would happen, but did say it was unlikely a station would be built without community support.
“If it comes to a point that where the study is completed, and there is a recommendation to go forward, and the town of Plaistow takes a vote that says no, then I can’t imagine a scenario where the Department of Transportation wants to go forward with a rail project," said Patrick Herlihy, director of aeronautics for NHDOT.
In a nonbinding referendum in 2012, residents overwhelmingly said they would not want a layover station located in Plaistow, 619-308.
But there were many who were in favor of the study, including Rick Blair of Plaistow. He's legally blind and said a train station in Plaistow would be a huge advantage to him.
“I don’t have the luxury of getting in my car and driving to the train station,” he said. “I would love to see a train station in Plaistow.”
Town Planner Leigh Komornick spoke passionately about the benefits of the study as well.
“Everyone needs to let the study happen,” she said. “What’s important is knowing that this is the study and not the project yet. If we don’t study this, we’re never going to know if this would ever work.”
Many had specific concerns about what they wanted to see in the study. Carla Mora of Plaistow said she was concerned about what safety procedures would be in place at a potential station.
“I moved from Boston to Plaistow to be safer,” she said. “Just last week, someone pulled a knife on a conductor on a train in Haverhill. That disturbs me.”
Bill Bennett, a former selectman in Atkinson, was concerned about how long trains would be idling at a layover station.
“The locomotive idling is supposed to be an hour before they start in service every morning,” he said. “I don’t know why you would ever have to idle a locomotive for an hour.”
Shem Kellogg of Plaistow was concerned about parking.
“(Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) estimates that there will be up to 2,000 riders in 2035,” he said. “There’s only 300 parking spaces.”
Plaistow Selectman John Sherman was worried about the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority — the agency that runs the rail — being able to financially sustain a potential station in Plaistow.
“We hear lots of things about how much trouble the MBTA is in financially,” Sherman said. “I want to know if consideration of the financial viability of the MBTA is part of the analysis.”
Sanborn said the NHDOT would try to look at all concerns that the community would want to get studied.
He also said a community advisory committee would be formed with residents from Plaistow, Haverhill, and Atkinson, and they will meet regularly during the course of the study. Those meetings would be open to the public.