By Doug Ireland
---- — Some day, passenger trains could be chugging through the Granite State’s southern tier, bringing commuters, tourists and economic development to the state.
Although there’s a limited chance they will be steaming through this area any time soon, some political and business leaders hope the advent of passenger rail will have a trickle-down effect upon Southern New Hampshire.
But that could be years away — if it happens at all.
But some local officials say it’s not worth studying the issue. Commuter rail would be impossible to fund in a state strapped for cash and provided limited economic or transportation benefits, they said.
The Governor’s Executive Council voted, 4-1, Wednesday to invest $3.6 million in a feasibility transit study to see if passenger rail service should be established along the Merrimack River, from the Massachusetts border to Concord.
“It will determine if it makes sense to pursue other options, including rail,” said William Boynton, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
But it doesn’t stop there.
“If they determine it is feasible, then you have to determine how to pay for it,” he said.
The study is expected to conclude by December 2014, Boynton said.
URS Corp., one of two Salem companies to bid on the contract, will now begin analyzing whether trains are a viable, cost-effective form of transportation in New Hampshire.
No one from URS could be reached for comment.
Nearly 90 percent of the money for the study comes from federal grants.
Political leaders, including Gov. Maggie Hassan, praised the council’s decision.
“Expanded rail service to Nashua and beyond has the potential to boost New Hampshire’s economy and create jobs,” Hassan said in a statement. “Using federal funds to study the rail project is a commonsense step forward that will allow the people of New Hampshire and their elected leaders to make informed decisions.”
Congressional leaders also spoke in favor of the study, including U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Congresswoman Annie Kuster, D-N.H.
The so-called “Capital Corridor” project would help create jobs and boost economic development in the Nashua, Concord and Manchester areas, they said.
But the question is whether Southern New Hampshire communities such as Salem, Windham, Derry and Londonderry would benefit from such a project.
That’s why undertaking such a study is important, some local officials said. There’s no way of knowing the potential economic impact until the study is completed, they said.
But some are confident that restoring passenger rail along the Nashua-Concord corridor could have a positive impact here, including Windham community development director Laura Scott.
“There have been studies all across the country showing that when commuter rail is brought into an area, economic development (prospers),” she said.
Donna Morris, executive director of the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“If you improve your infrastructure and transportation, it’s going to carry over,” she said. “I believe there would be an over-spill to this area.”
But Scott and Morris both said completing the widening of Interstate 93 from Salem to Manchester is still the biggest priority for Southern New Hampshire.
“Our focus is still on I-93,” Morris said.
Plaistow Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald said he’s been following the Capitol Corridor proposal and thinks the study is worth undertaking.
He’s been advocating restoration of passenger rail in Plaistow, saying extension of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority commuter rail through his town would create jobs and boost economic development.
“Not to do that would be an abdication of our responsibility of officials to explore this,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we study this?”
But residents of both Plaistow and neighboring Atkinson have opposed the rail line and a proposed layover station, saying they would disrupt their communities.
Fitzgerald said rail has been proven to be a safer form of transportation than motor vehicles and leads to less pollution.
As proposed, an estimated 737 commuters would use the service daily, diverting 670 vehicles from Route 125 in Plaistow and Haverhill.
Fitzgerald pointed to Amtrak’s Downeaster passenger train, which travels daily from Boston to Freeport, Maine, making several stops along the way.
Those stops include Dover, Durham and Exeter, but not Plaistow, even though the train passes through town each day, Fitzgerald said.
Plaistow residents like to wave at the train, he said, “But they can’t get on it.”
Boynton said the Downeaster is an example of commuter rail that has proven to be viable.
“That has been successful,” he said. “They seem to get a lot of activity. It’s very popular with UNH students.”
Another supporter of commuter rail is Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, one of the four executive councilors to vote in favor of the study.
Pignatelli, who recently returned to the council after a hiatus, said the rail study was one of her key platforms while seeking election this fall.
Last year, the council voted, 3-2, against pursuing a similar study, she said.
Like Fitzgerald, she believes commuter rail can provide an effective and efficient mode of transportation while reducing the congestion and pollution caused by motor vehicles.
She also supports the expansion of freight lines, taking more big trucks off New Hampshire roads.
All options need to be considered, she said, before automatically concluding the project is not worth pursuing.
“Don’t we have to study it before we say no?” she said. “Don’t we have to study if before we say yes?”
Commuter rail has been successful in other parts of the country, including Texas, she said.
“When we looked at this in other areas, there has been a huge economic explosion,” she said.
She said there is no firm figure for how much the project would cost.
One estimate pegs the expense at close to $300 million.
Although Pignatelli expects communities in the Nashua-Concord corridor will see economic benefits if the project is undertaken, she said it’s difficult to say if it would have much of an impact on Southern New Hampshire.
Some strongly oppose the project, including Executive Councilor Christopher Sununu, R-Newfields. He was the only councilor to vote against the study.
Sununu believes the project is a waste of time and money, calling the proposal a “boondoggle.”
Another opponent is Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry, head of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Rausch, responding to a question Friday at a Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum, said the Capitol Corridor project would not be feasible.
“The population does not exist in this state to support a train system going to Concord,” he said. “I don’t support it and I think we would save some money.”
Rausch said bus transportation is a better and cheaper alternative, he said.
“That is a more effective, efficient system,” Rausch said. “Trains can’t run every hour to half hour.”
Also speaking at the forum was Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem. Both senators said one of the state’s top priorities should be completing the I-93 expansion between Salem and Manchester.
They agree the Capitol Corridor project would not have a significant economic impact on towns such as Salem and Derry.
Morse said the state’s money would be better spent on infrastructure improvements such as the I-93 widening.
“I think we ought to be working on problems we have now,” he said. “I don’t see us supporting rail any time soon.”