By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM, N.H. — Starting Monday, a local company will offer an east-west transit service unique to Southern New Hampshire.
It’s called East West Express — and it’s an initiative that Flight Line of Salem and transportation officials hope really takes off.
The company, located on Pelham Road, was awarded a $2.4 million grant last year to operate a private van service linking communities between Manchester and Portsmouth. The service will provide 20 round trips daily.
That means residents of Southern New Hampshire — from Plaistow to Salem — will benefit, according to Flight Line president Jamie Dowd.
They can grab a ride to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to catch a flight or to Portsmouth to go shopping and take advantage of its many restaurants and hotels, leaving their car at home, he said.
“This is the first regularly scheduled service to connect the seacoast to Manchester,” Dowd said. “A lot of people have been asking for this for some time.”
The new service is part of a public-private partnership between Flight Line, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and the federal government. It is expected to provide affordable and efficient transit along a route that has never had public transportation.
It will cost $19 per person for a one-way trip between Manchester and Portsmouth, $9 for a trip between Epping and Manchester, and $10 for a trip between Epping and Portsmouth. Discounts are available for senior citizens and Medicare recipients.
A frequent rider program offers trips for $10 each way between Manchester and Portsmouth and $5 from Epping, roughly halfway between the two cities and a short distance from Kingston and Newton.
The service will also provide another alternative for people commuting to jobs in Manchester and Portsmouth — two of the largest cities in the state, according to Fred Butler, the DOT’s public transportation administrator.
“We expect it to be huge,” Butler said yesterday. “It’s been 10 years in the making.”
The Governor’s Executive Council approved the three-year contract for the service in November 2012. The funding is from the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program.
State Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement praised the service.
“East West Express will cut emissions and congestion from commuters and airport travelers,” Clement said in a prepared statement. “It will reduce individuals’ trips and their emissions and fuel use.”
While Flight Line has been transporting people to Logan International and Manchester-Boston Regional airports for more than 25 years, providing east-west service will be a new challenge, Dowd said.
But he’s optimistic his 70-employee company can make the transition. It’s hiring an additional 10 to 15 employees and has purchased six vans for about $85,000 each.
The goal is to begin transporting about 50 passengers a day and to increase that number to 85 by next year and 100 by the third year, Dowd said. Twenty people immediately made reservations when the service was announced Wednesday.
No companies had proposed providing transit service along the largely rural route until a study was completed by the Southern New Hampshire and Rockingham County planning commissions in 2009, Butler said.
“Until a study was done, there was no funding for that service,” he said. “That ramped things up when the CMAC funding became available.”
Thomas Malafronte, assistant airport director at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, said the new service will be beneficial to customers.
“We think it will be a win-win,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to help them become successful.”
The stops are at the airport, the Manchester Transportation Center on Canal Street, the Epping Park and Ride on Route 125, and the Portsmouth Transportation Center on Route 33. Reservations can be made at eastwestnh.com or 1-800-245-2525.