Panel gives nudge to rail plan

NASHUA – The plan for a local commuter rail station cleared a hurdle Tuesday night when an aldermanic committee approved a resolution to pay the city’s estimated $14 million costs for the project using a special tax district.

It was the first good news for project supporters since November 2002, when the Executive Council balked at paying for a project study followed by a series of setbacks.

“Even though it’s a nonbinding resolution, it is a very strong statement from the Board of Aldermen,” said Stephen Williams, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission.

In the past, aldermen backed legislation endorsing the project. This resolution, for the first time, adds a financial tool to build the station, Williams said.

The commuter rail project, with the station, parking and track improvements, is estimated to cost $70 million.

The federal government so far has dedicated about $24 million to the project. Inaction on the part of the state Transportation Department and the city has cost the project $4 million in federal support. The money lapsed when Congress adopted a new federal budget.

The city must come up with the $14 million to tap into the federal transportation money.

The project would connect Nashua to Boston by extending the rail service about 20 miles from Lowell, Mass. The resolution calls for erecting a rail station as part of a complex of residential units, retail stores, restaurants and office space.

The special tax district would direct increased revenues generated by the development to pay the city’s costs for the project.

City administrators have eyed some 10 acres on the end of East Spit Brook Road as the favorable station site. Talks are ongoing with the property owners, Dow Chemical, about its reservations about building residential development on the site.

The aldermanic Planning & Economic Development Committee easily endorsed the measure Tuesday, with only Ward 2 Alderman Richard LaRose opposing the resolution.

The resolution faces a final vote by the Board of Aldermen next week.

A half-dozen rail supporters attended the meeting. They collected some 200 signatures for a petition to back the rail project.

Residents are happy to sign the petition, said Dan Kelly, of Ledgewood Hills condominium complex. “They are amazed we are having any trouble whatsoever,” said Kelly.

A sign of a turn of fortune could be seen when two aldermen critical of the tax district idea changed their votes to back it.

Alderman-at-Large David Rootovich said he supports it with a series of checkpoints before aldermen approve borrowing money. Rootovich said he reserves the right to change his mind if the financial picture turns bad.

Rootovich said he was encouraged to receive a letter from Rep. Charlie Bass restating his support for the project. Bass wrote that he plans to work for additional funding, if the city commits its financial support.

Alderman-at-Large David Deane said the resolution establishes a series of seven steps to guide the process.

“It set the go and no go points,” said Deane, who worked with aldermanic President Brian McCarthy to change the initial resolution that ran into opposition.

Williams said the resolution could help persuade state leaders in the Transportation Department that Nashua is serious and could preserve funds that are at risk of being taken away.

The cautiousness on the part of aldermen is, in part, driven by the city’s first experience with a tax increment financing district.

Aldermen in the summer approved the downtown tax district to construct a boardwalk along the Nashua River. However, there has been little visible progress on the high-end condominium development that is to anchor the boardwalk since the approval.