Commuter Rail

LFDA Editor

In November 2014 the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority (NHRTA) released the results of a feasibility study for southern New Hampshire commuter rail.

The study examined three rail options: a line connecting Nashua to Massachusetts, a line extending to Manchester, and a line extending all the way to Concord.

Rail to Nashua

The "Nashua Minimum" option would be primarily funded by federal and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) contributions, leaving $4 million in additional costs each year.  The rail line between Massachusetts and Nashua would bring an estimated 1,200 new jobs and 600 new housing units to New Hampshire by 2030, according to the study.

Rail to Manchester

The "Manchester Regional" option would also be funded in large part by federal and MBTA contributions, leaving $7 million in additional costs each year.  The route would have four stops in New Hampshire.  The study estimated the rail between Massachusetts and Manchester would bring 5,600 new permanent jobs and 3,600 housing units to the state by 2030.

Rail to Concord

Lastly, the "Concord Intercity" option would get federal funds, but no MBTA contributions.  It would cost the state an additional $15 million each year.  The route would also have just four stops in New Hampshire.  The connection between Massachusetts and Concord would bring an estimated 3,700 jobs and 2,200 new housing units to New Hampshire by 2030.

Funding Options

The additional $4, $7, or $15 million each year could be funded through parking fees, vehicle registration fees, municipal contributions, lottery revenues, the state Energy Efficiency Fund, or some other state government source.

The state legislature must now decide whether to provide additional funding for the NHRTA to pursue one of these commuter rail options.


"For" Position

By LFDA Editor

According to the NHRTA study, a southern New Hampshire commuter rail will increase residential development, because an easier commute attracts new residents.  Those new residents and riders will in turn attract commercial development and new jobs.

According to the state's Department of Transportation (DOT), other benefits include increased tourism, reduced traffic congestion on Routes 3 and 93 and therefore less cost to maintain those roads, more transportation choices for residents, and decreased pollution. 

"There is simply no economic development opportunity on the horizon that could transform New Hampshire's economy like the expansion of passenger rail could offer," said Thomas Mahon, chair of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority. "We firmly believe that the options are clear: invest in passenger rail or choose the status quo and face the negative consequences associated with our young people fleeing the state while our existing population ages and in-migration continues to decline."

"Against" Position

By LFDA Editor

Commuter rail opponents challenge rosy economic projections.  Josh Elliott-Traficante, policy analyst for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, has said rail stations do not prompt new businesses to open, they only change where businesses choose to locate. 

Opponents also point to financial problems faced by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and National Railroad Passenger Corporation. 

"It's not an energy-efficient way to move people; not a good use of money; and it would create a state bureaucracy that requires more taxation to sustain," former House Speaker Bill O'Brien (R-Mont Vernon) told the Union Leader.

Lastly, some opponents are concerned about pollution from commuter rail.  A 2010 study by the Bookings Institution found that transit investment only changes the metropolitan landscape if there are other incentives to decrease car use. 


Killed in the House

Prohibits most idling of commuter rail locomotives

Signed by Governor

Decreases the number of members of the board of directors for the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority and establishes a Rail Advisory Board that includes members from several municipalities and regional planning commissions

Establishes a committee to study public-private partnerships for intermodal transportation

Vetoed by Governor

Repealing the New Hampshire Rail Transit Auhority (NHRTA)

Should NH pursue expanded commuter rail?


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joshe's picture
Josh Elliott-Traficante
- Concord

Thu, 03/28/2013 - 12:40am

In January, the New Hampshire Executive Council is taking up a contract for a study looking at bringing commuter rail to the state.There is a common misconception that the state has not studied this idea recently; however two lengthy studies have been completed in the past six years. A 43 page study was done in 2007 by the Passenger Rail Taskforce which looked at service to Manchester and another of similar length was done in 2010 by TranSystems for the NH Rail Authority, NHDOT and the Nashua Rail Planning Commission which looked at the entire corridor to Concord. While neither study recommends for or against introducing commuter rail, they provide a wealth of information as to how much the route would cost.
From the studies it is clear that constructing the route in its entirety to Concord would cost roughly $300 million and require subsidies of $11 million a year to operate.

Since there has been discussion of extending rail either just into Nashua, or just as far north as Manchester with service to Nashua, cost estimates for these, calculated from data in the studies, have been included as well.

Q: What is the Capital Corridor Project?
A: It is a proposal to extend commuter rail service north from Lowell, MA to Concord, NH, with intermediate stops in Nashua, Manchester Boston-Regional Airport and downtown Manchester. Trains would run into North Station in Boston.

Q: How Much Would it Cost to Build?
A: Costs are highly dependent on the scope of the improvements, such as single or double tracking the line or how far the line would run. (i.e. just to Nashua or Manchester or all the way up to Concord.) NHDOT in the 2013-2022 Ten Year plan estimates the capital costs the cost at roughly $265 million[1] if the Corridor were completed in its entirety, while the most recent study puts the cost at closer $330 million in 2013 dollars.[2]

Lowell to Nashua: $53-$66 million
Lowell to Manchester with service to Nashua: $159-$200 million
Lowell to Concord with service Nashua and Manchester: $265-$330 million

Q: Won’t Massachusetts Pay for the Upgrades for the Section of Track from Lowell to the State Line?
A: Probably not. According to the Joint Statement of Principles Concerning Proposed New Hampshire Capital Corridor Service[3], signed between Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 2001, the state of New Hampshire is responsible for all capital improvements required, including those needed in Massachusetts. Furthering the point, Governor Deval Patrick’s recently released transportation proposal does not include the extension of commuter rail service north of Lowell, indicating a lack of interest in Boston for expansion on that line.[4]

Q: How Much Would it Cost to Run?
A: Once built, there are two different kinds of costs: operating expenses and ongoing capital expenses. Operating expenses are the day to day costs, such as salaries for employees and fuel for the locomotives. A number of factors that go into projecting operating expenses, such as the number of trains in service and how many runs a day they are completing. TranSystems[5] based their study on 5 round trips per day and the Passenger Rail Taskforce Study[6] with 4 round trips per day.
Lowell to Nashua: $2.7 million per year
Lowell to Manchester with service Nashua: $8 million per year
Lowell to Concord with service Nashua and Manchester: $13.25 million per year

In addition to operating expenses, there are also ongoing capital expenses beyond just building the railroad. Track needs to be replaced, locomotives breakdown, coaches need to be refurbished and so forth.

Lowell to Nashua: $600,000 per year
Lowell to Manchester with service Nashua: $1.8 million per year
Lowell to Concord with service Nashua and Manchester: $3 million per year

Q: Would the State Need to Subsidize Commuter Rail?
A: Yes. Both the TranSystems[7] study and the Passenger Rail Taskforce Study[8] highlight the need for ongoing subsidies to keep the train from going bankrupt. These two studies estimate that passenger fares will cover between 30% and 50% of operating costs. In addition, there are ongoing capital costs that need to be paid for as well. Taking those into account, estimates of total subsidies needed every year are as follows:
Lowell to Nashua: $1.9 - $2.6 million per year
Lowell to Manchester with service Nashua: $5.8 - $7.5 million per year
Lowell to Concord with service Nashua and Manchester: $9.25 - $12.25 million per year

Q: Where Would the State Get the Money to Pay for the Train?
A: The studies are largely silent on the specific sources of funding for either the capital costs or the operating subsidies, aside from relying on Federal money.
For the roughly $300 million in construction costs, the state would likely have to depend on either Federal grants or borrow the money through a bond issue. The New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority does have the authority to both solicit Federal dollars and issue bonds. Last month however, the State Treasurer urged lawmakers to limit capital bonding to under $125 million, making the latter unlikely.[9]

Money from the Federal CMAQ program (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) can be used in the initial startup years to help cover the shortfall in operating costs. However, without special Congressional approval, it can only be used for a few years, not indefinitely. After the CMAQ money runs out, the state would have to find a source of money to cover the entirety of the shortfall itself.

Q: Couldn’t the State Use Money from the Gas Tax to Pay for Both Construction and the Subsidy?
A: No. Part II, Article 6-a of the NH Constitution[10] forbids the use of money from the Highway Fund on anything other than highways. In a particularly relevant case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a suit brought by the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association (NHMTA v NHDOT 2004) that the state could not use highway funds to extend commuter rail into Nashua.[11]

Q: How Does the Downeaster, which Runs from Brunswick ME, Through the NH Seacoast into Boston, Address These Costs?
A: The capital costs of constructing the rail line were financed by issuing bonds, backed by the State of Maine, which were repaid with tax dollars. Federal CMAQ money is used to cover some of the operating losses. Under normal circumstances, CMAQ money is only allowed for the first several years of service, however, through special Congressional approval, Maine is allowed to use funds long after they would have otherwise been phased out. The remainder of the operating loss is covered by a state tax on rental cars. The Downeaster covers roughly 53% of its operating costs through fares.[12]

Links to Past Studies:
Passenger Rail Task Force Study: (2007)
TranSystems: (2010)

[2] Pg 27
[3] Pg 21
[5] Pg 30
[6] Appendix A, pg 32.
[7] Pg 31
[8] Pg 10


This article was originally published by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, which is not affilitated with the Live Free or Die Alliance.

Rich Magoon
- Loudon

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:41am

In the words of Mr David Fink (CEO Pan Am RR Lines) "Everyone wants to study the cost of commuter rail, no one wants study the benefits."

Therefore, millions of dollars are spent on commuter rail studies that result in "it cost too much".  I estimate that $ 4 million is wasted, yet one seems to care.  Why is that?


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Issue Status

Continued exploration of options for extending commuter rail service into New Hampshire were set back when legislators opted not to include $4 million for further study of the proposal in their budget proposal. However, in June 2015, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed SB 88, which established a committee to study the possibility of using a public-private partnership to fund the project.


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