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Opportunity through Commuter Rail

I was having a little trouble coming up with a topic for this week but two articles published locally today addressing commuter rail solved the problem for me.

The first is a Patch article publishing a draft for a proposed southbound exit on Route 3 driving from Nashua into Massachusetts. The second was an article that revealed over half of the parking at the nearest commuter rail stop in Lowell, Ma is going to be closed for the next year. With roughly 20% of the license plates in the garages being repaired in lowly having NH plates on average, this closure will impact Nashua residents that commute into Boston from the Lowell station.

So let’s talk light rail and commuter rail in New Hampshire. We don’t have it. Period. For many, maybe it’s not a big deal, but for job seekers, employers, and potential businesses looking for locations, it’s a huge deal and a deal breaker. Nashua has been struggling with a rapid flight of its youth and young professionals for areas that can accommodate their housing needs and professional needs. With more opportunities in Boston than the Nashua area, job seekers look and often move there to accommodate employment opportunities. With a very transient generation of millenials, Nashua will also soon face a huge housing crisis in the next decade or two, but that’s a conversation for another day. Applicants based out of Nashua for whom relocating is not an option face either driving or commuting via train and may already be eliminated for a position before the application reviewer even gets past their address! I have had distance/location cited as a reason for not being hired, despite my willingness to relocate to accommodate a job opportunity.

Proposed commuter rail expansion would extend the line from Lowell to potentially as far north as Concord, NH. Yet New Hampshire has been remarkably resistant to adopt light rail, or any rail for that matter. In 2012, the executive council voted 3-2 to reject a federally funded grant to study the feasibility of implementing commuter rail in NH. The Nashua representative on the council, David Wheeler, was one of those that voted against it citing that the time wasn’t right and we didn’t need commuter rail. Yet, nothing said it had to be built, all this was funding was conducting a study, something many of the Aldermen and members of the Chamber of Commerce in Nashua strongly supported. But alas, when your campaign is backed by the trucking industry, these things happen. He maintained that the state should focus on the local bus service, the Boston Express, since it pays for itself rather than investing in commuter rail and that the density wasn’t right. Again, NOTHING WAS BEING BUILT! IT WAS A STUDY!! That study would have been completed by now had the council initially accepted the funding. Repeated interviews and panels with Mr. Wheeler seemed to indicate that he didn’t understand the difference between a feasibility study and actual construction, or that he just wasn’t listening to his constituents in Nashua. Wheeler was shown the door in the fall elections in 2012 and in February of 2013 the executive council approved the study in a 4-1 vote.

Now the Boston Express works fine for occasional use. I personally enjoy it, and any form of mass transportation that allows me to sleep and takes the burden of driving out of my hands (except for flying, I hate flying with a passion but that has more to do with my own irrationality than the practicality of it). I’ve used the service since it first opened and used to take it to south station to catch the bus to New York. It is a lot more popular now than it was 5 or 6 years ago when I sometimes found myself the sole rider. I have nothing against the Boston Express. But Commuter rail in Nashua would be beneficial too, especially after many commuters today learned that the parking at the Lowell station would be closing for the next year. The Boston Express can accommodate maybe 45 passengers at a time, and that’s to distribute between South Station and Logan Airport. A rail car could accommodate at least 3 or 4 times that at a time, depending on the size.

Commuter rail would not only benefit Nashua, but points north such as Manchester and Concord as well. The Manchester Airport modified its name recently to become the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. If you get to Manchester thinking you’ll be anywhere near Boston, then you are in for a shock. Rail connecting the two cities would provide a wider range of alternative flights for travelers and connect commerce and business in NH to a rail line. It would be incredibly beneficial to the Airport.

So why are we so far behind on this? With rising gas prices, rail use has increased the last few years, but many politicians in NH insist we don’t need it, making NH the only New England state to not develop rail of some kind in the last few years. A transportation hub at a proposed southbound exit 36 would lessen some of the burden at the Lowell Commuter stop. Statewide rail for shipping purposes would lessen the wear and tear on the highways, which in NH are paid for through tolls. Commuter and mass transit access reduces the wear and tear of personal vehicles. I’ve heard the argument that it provides a way to make your commute a productive one, but I don’t think any employer should expect you to be doing work on your commute into work (though I won’t lie, I have certainly done work for school in all forms of transportation, planes, trains, bus, and automobile simply because I could. Were I in charge of managing my own transportation, many of those circumstances would have been hours of work lost, which in some cases does matter). I’ve heard the argument against commuter rail that someone who lives in one of the more rural towns doesn’t need it. They work nearby and never go to Boston because of the traffic. Ever consider that increased rail ridership would reduce road traffic and create an easier opportunity to get to Boston? The argument becomes a circular conversation. The same goes for the subway in Boston; it’s unreliable so people don’t use it, but if it had more ridership then it would be better funded and could be maintained on a more regular basis.

Commuter Rail is all about opportunity. It connects cities. It provides a viable mode of transportation that avoids the struggles of traffic lights and road rage. Studies have shown huge economic development opportunities at stops and hubs. It would be easier to connect people to jobs. New Hampshire needs to stop hemming and hawing on the project because economic vitality is at stake. Maybe I’ll eat my words when the results of the feasibility study are released, but I believe that there is huge support for rail and a large enough population to support it. Without rail, New Hampshire is at an economic disadvantage to the rest of New England. Business and industry will benefit from it, along with the public who wish to have easier access to Boston. This should not be a partisan political discussion (which it seems to be at this point). We don’t need leaders who think that they can just dismiss proposals for economic development without even reviewing researched data thinking they know everything. If it’s so unclear, why not put it up to vote and see what the voters have to say. Those concerned with tax implications in purchases can rest assured that over time the investment in rail will yield more businesses and lessen the tax burden on the public. Too many projects are rejected because of shortsightedness, and rail is one of the victims of that problem. Now is the time to pursue this before Nashua and the rest of the state loses all of its youth to other communities.

Nashua has already approved funding to purchase property in anticipation of the commuter rail system and wants to be ready to go should the study show positive implications for the state of NH and commuter rail. Rail is not a perfect end all solution, but as I said, it offers opportunity. It worked during the industrial revolution, and it’s a sad state that we have to fight for a technology that was overwhelmingly popular over a century and a half ago.

Articles from the Nashua Telegraph on the ongoing process to develop and sources for this post can be found in the archives on the Nashua Telegraph's website under their section on Rail.

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