Rail plan hits another obstacle

NASHUA – Restrictions on the favored site for a commuter rail station off East Spit Brook Road are the latest wrinkle in the plan to return train service to the city.

Aldermen on the Planning and Economic Development Committee had more questions than support for a special taxing district to pay the city’s required $14 million portion of the project, as committee members opted not to vote on the resolution. “There’s just a lot of unknowns,” said Alderman-at-Large David Rootovich.

He said he would like to see guarantees that the city won’t be responsible for millions of dollars of project expenses, if the federal government does not come forward with the money.

However, Aldermanic President Brian McCarthy said the committee is asking for specific details that cannot be answered yet.

The city has to show there is support to move forward first, triggering responses from state and federal leaders to answer those detailed questions, he said.

The resolution only establishes a policy, saying the city back the resolution, it does not mean anyone can spend city money, he said.

But others said the project is so big with large ramifications, city leaders need to ask questions up front.

The resolution calls for the establishment of a tax district to pay for a rail station; building high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented development; the state Department of Transportation is responsible for the operation of the commuter rail; and a transit authority to govern the rail system.

Plans for commuter rail connect Nashua with Boston by extending the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority It is estimated to cost $70.1 million. Approximately $24 million has been received from the federal government.

Also, advocates for the rail service are also nervously watching the calendar. A January deadline approaches when a state committee decides whether to use the lion’s share of designated federal funds for projects along Interstate 93 or keep it reserved for commuter rail.

Stephen Williams, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, said the state Department of Transportation has marked the $21 million for both the rail project and the interstate highway.

In January, an advisory committee will suggest to Gov.-elect John Lynch which project should get the money. One factor will be how much progress the rail project has made, he said.

On the favored site, Dow Chemical closed its plant on East Spit Brook Road and is selling the property. Transportation consultants and community planners have eyed the southern 10 acres for a possible station, along with other uses.

However, Mayor Bernie Streeter and Community Development Director Kathy Hersh said the chemical company recently indicated it is not interested in selling the property for residential use.

In a letter to the company’s real estate firm, Cushman and Wakefield, Streeter wrote the company’s restrictions raise serious concerns about the environmental status of the site.

A representative from Cushman & Wakefield could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

A key component of the tax district includes a complex of 200 apartments, along with a mix of retail stores, and offices.

Alderman-at-Large David Deane said cutting out the housing units changes the dynamics of the site and makes the necessary tax revenue questionable.

The development at the rail station would be designated as a tax increment finance district. A TIF system works by freezing the tax revenue in its district. All increased taxes above the set amount pay for new public amenities in the district.

The TIF is designed to raise the $14 million match required from the city of Nashua for the project. The remainder of the $70 million estimated cost is coming from the federal government. Some $24 million from Washington, D.C., has been raised so far. About $4 million is about to lapse for lack of use.

The goal of introducing commuter rail here has been in jeopardy since the state gas tax was ruled out of bounds to pay the city’s contribution. Neither the city nor the state government have stepped forward since to shoulder the financial responsibility of the local contribution.

Seven aldermen have endorsed the resolution, along with Streeter.