NH officials push idea of rails from airport to Boston

Imagine the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport as an ideal international landing pad, allowing overseas visitors to get off a plane, cross the river into Merrimack and hop on a train, then travel to Boston.

This is the vision stirring among members of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.

“If we were to have a commuter rail connection it would make Manchester more viable as an international airport,” said Tom Mahon, Merrimack Town Council Chairman, and a New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority designee.

“Europeans are used to getting off a plane and getting on a train to move around. They could take a short shuttle ride to the train, which takes them to Boston, hooks them up to Amtrak that connects to the rest of the county. It’s a much more attractive airport to come into when you don’t have the congestion problems of airports in Philadelphia, New York or Boston,” he said.

If passenger rail ever returns to the tracks running along the western side of the Merrimack River – an idea that has been discussed for two decades – stations would certainly be placed in Nashua and Manchester. Placing a station in north Merrimack, near the Bedford line, is a relatively new idea; the Rail Transit Authority has started to discuss the potential for a commuter rail station just south of the Manchester Airport Access Road.

“The whole area is made up of about 40 acres – a great site for a station, parking lot, and private land there could develop into a transportation facility,” said Michael Izbicki, New Hampshire Rail and Transit Authority Interim Executive Director. “It has a lot of potential, and it’s less than two miles to the airport.”

A group of graduating engineering students at University of New Hampshire probed the station’s plans with their senior project, titled “Rail Station Feasibility Study and Proposal.”

“The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission had been looking at (that location) but hadn’t done any type of study of that area. The students put together an excellent report that looked at all aspects of the property and its feasibility,” said Izbicki. “Their study brought it all to life.”

Izbicki joins Rail Transit Authority Chairman Paul Burling at a Merrimack town council meeting Thursday to brief residents on the status of the commuter rail service and its potential impacts on Merrimack.

Burling and Manchester Airport Director Mark Brewer attended a town meeting in Bedford last week and garnered strong support for the commuter rail station, Izbicki said.

“They had a lot of positive feedback from the audience, a lot of support for project,” Izbicki said. “I am getting a very strong message that people want this commuter line, that businesses want it. People want transportation options, they want choices for how they get to and from Boston.”

At the Merrimack meeting Thursday, Mahon said, the project will update listeners on the commuter rail project as a whole, in addition to the proposal for a Merrimack commuter station.

“We’re just going to talk about the project and see where the discussion goes,” Mahon said. “Some are going to say, ‘How the heck are you going to afford that? . . . Others will say they can’t wait until it gets here, to be able to sit in the train and use Internet access, travel 110-120 minutes and be in Boston with no traffic, no parking, no wrangles. Just sit there and read a paper or do nothing, and let someone else worry about it.”

The ecological and economic benefits of the commuter rail are hard to deny, Mahon said. A rail system minimizes the amount of carbon monoxide expended into the air as people opt for train travel rather than by car.

Plus, a train station on the Merrimack/Bedford line promises an economic boon for the entire region.

“Most studies determine that every dollar invested in commuter rail gets $6 back in economic activity,” Mahon said.

But before any dollars can be invested in the project, the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority needs to get their hands on the proper funds to go forth with design plans. They are still working towards the Aug. 24 deadline to apply for a share of $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds set aside for high-speed passenger rail projects.

“At this point, there are no guarantees,” Mahon said. “The pre-application process got over 280 applications, requests for funding totals over $101 million. The competition is pretty intense.”

New Hampshire hopes its rail proposal will be more attractive as part of New England’s regional rail proposition. New Hampshire joins Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine in the request for rail project funds – the idea being that Recovery and Reinvestment money will go where it can benefit more states and more people.

“The commuter rail project is a statewide and regional project. The commuter rail will eventually be regional,” Izbicki said. “We want for grant money to benefit the entire region. We’re now in the competition for money between other regions in the country. Until we know we have the funding for project, we can’t go to the next level.”

For now, the Transit Rail Authority will continue efforts to inform residents about the project’s development and future plans for the commuter rail system.

“We’re going to discuss what Merrimack will have to do, some of the transport options they’re going to have to explore once commuter rail becomes a reality,” Izbicki said.

There are even plans to produce a half-hour informational show about New Hampshire’s commuter rail plans to be distributed across the state’s local community television stations.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-5833 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com.