By John Toole email@example.com
---- — SALEM — A Salem transit company has won a $2.4 million contract from the state to provide van service from Manchester to Portsmouth over the next three years.
The deal will get Seacoast residents to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport as soon as next year, but also holds the promise of a commuter link among University of New Hampshire campuses and Amtrak’s Downeaster rail service, officials said.
Prices will be set later, but are expected to cost about $20 for a round-trip ticket from Portsmouth to the Manchester transit center or $38 to the airport, Flight Line president Jamie Dowd said yesterday.
The schedule likely will include 19 trips daily, bracketing the first and last flights out of the airport.
Passengers will travel aboard handicapped-accessible Mercedes vans that carry 10 to 11 passengers, depending on configuration.
The company plans to purchase five or six vans at a cost of $85,000 each, a total expense of about $500,000.
The contract with the state is federally funded and will help finance operating and marketing costs, said Patrick Herlihy, state director of aeronautics, rail and transit.
The contract runs through June 30, 2016.
“This is a public-private partnership,” Dowd said.
Herlihy said studies by the Southern New Hampshire and Rockingham County regional planning commissions recommended the service. The goal is for the service to become self-sufficient, he said.
“Ultimately, this will get people from the Seacoast to the airport,” Herlihy said.
But others are interested, too.
“We are very pleased to hear that east-west transit service on Route 101 between Portsmouth and Manchester has moved one step closer to startup,” said Stephen Pesci, UNH special projects director.
UNH has a long-term goal of working with transit companies and the state Department of Transportation to connect the campuses in Manchester, Durham and the law school in Concord with the Seacoast and central corridor of the state, he said.
Pesci and Dowd agree the service may yield commuter links to the Downeaster rail service, too.
“Hopefully, this will start to change the way people think about public transportation,” Dowd said. “There is a lot of exciting potential in linking existing operations.”
Officials at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport supported the move, Dowd said.
Assistant airport director Tom Malafronte said one of the biggest challenges the airport encounters is a need for regularly scheduled ground transportation in a rural state. When there is service, be it north-south or east-west, more people will look to fly out of the airport, he said.
“It can only benefit the airport,” Malafronte said.
Flight Line anticipates hiring eight or nine drivers and three office staffers.
Gov. John Lynch and the Executive Council approved the pact at the meeting yesterday in Concord.
DOT and Flight Line officials this week are discussing startup.
Flight Line Inc. already provides shuttle and van service to Logan Airport, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, South Station in Boston and Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in Boston.
Flight Line was founded by Dowd’s father 25 years ago.
He said it does $2.5 million in business annually, moving 200 to 300 people daily in a fleet of 10-passenger Ford vans and in Volkswagen sport wagons that seat up to three passengers.
Dowd said the company employs 70 people, about 80 percent of them working full time.
The company estimates about 90 percent of riders pay a $29 fare from highway park-and-ride lots. Others pay $59 for a ride-sharing, door-to-door service or as much as $110 for a private ride.