Study says NH needs commuter rail–will the politicians agree?

Next stop: Manchester? - photo by matthrono
Next stop: Manchester? – photo by matthrono

We’ve written several times about the need for commuter rail between Manchester and Boston. In fact, LivableMHT’s very first post was about the Capitol Corridor study of passenger rail between Concord, Manchester, Nashua and Boston.

Two years ago, the Executive Council wisely permitted that study to go forward, and with the official results of due out soon, there are very promising preliminary results showing that commuter rail would be an economic boon to southern New Hampshire.

New Hampshire continues to lose young people to cities like Boston and New York, and the tech companies and startups that fill places like the Millyard have sounded the alarm that they are having difficulty attracting talented workers to the state. It’s clear that the “New Hampshire Advantage” of low taxes (unless you consider property taxes) and a low cost-of-living is no longer enough to convince the young, talented workers who drive the economy that New Hampshire, and more specifically Manchester, is a dynamic, interesting place to live. The State and the Queen City need to step up their game, and join with Nashua, in strongly advocating for a rail connection to Boston.

Manchester Regional Rail option from the Capitol Corridor study
Manchester Regional Rail option from the Capitol Corridor study

Commuter rail won’t solve all of the state’s problems, but with the study showing that the “Manchester Regional” option will lead to an additional 5,600 new jobs and 3,600 new housing units, with nearly 2,600 daily riders, there’s no question that the investment to build and operate passenger rail would be a plus for the state. Rail commuters in Nashua, many of whom now drive to Lowell to catch a train to Boston, would largely be heading south for work.

That will probably be the case in Manchester, too, but Gray Chynoweth, COO of Dyn, points out that passenger rail between Manchester and Boston would also make it easier for commuters to head north from the Hub to the Queen City. That would make jobs in Manchester more attractive to young people who want to live in a bigger city like Boston, and it would make tech companies and other businesses that rely on young workers more likely to stay and move to New Hampshire. Over time, some of those commuters heading north to Manchester might be attracted by the lower rent, access to the outdoors, and the city’s burgeoning dining scene, and decide to settle in the Queen City, knowing that they could still easily hop on a train down to Boston.

The business community and, according to the latest poll, 68% of Granite Staters are behind passenger rail between southern New Hampshire and Boston. Now, it’s just a question of whether elected officials will realize that the same old strategies aren’t good enough, and that New Hampshire is going to have to make some infrastructure investments if it wants to return to a strongly growing economy.

Relying on commuter buses will lead to no additional new jobs or housing units
Relying on commuter buses will lead to no additional new jobs or housing units

New Hampshire’s new House Speaker Shawn Jasper has opposed passenger rail in the past, but not nearly as stridently as former Speaker Bill O’Brien. Nearly four years ago, Rep. Jasper argued that in such tough economic times New Hampshire couldn’t afford passenger rail, arguing instead that bus service is more efficient. But the study clearly shows that even with investments in improved bus service, buses will lead to at best 1/10 the ridership of passenger rail and absolutely zero new jobs or housing units. Speaker Jasper has said that improving the economy needs be the state’s top priority, so we hope he will see that New Hampshire cannot afford to not invest in commuter rail.

Potential location of a downtown Manchester rail station identified by the study
Potential location of a downtown Manchester rail station identified by the study

Similarly, Mayor Ted Gatsas is still noncommittal about passenger rail in the Queen City. While former Mayor Bob Baines is beating the drum for the economic benefits that rail would bring to Manchester, the city’s current mayor said recently that rail is “certainly something we could favor, but we’re looking at all the particulars.” Here are the particulars: in the nineteenth-century, towns that were bypassed by railroads died; the twenty-first century is shaping up to be no different.

As Mark Connolly noted in Friday’s Union Leader, the study lays out several creative financing options for building and operating passenger rail, including “incremental business profits taxes and property taxes resulting from passenger rail [that] can be targeted to defray bonding expenses.” With the number of jobs and housing units projected, there’s no way to argue that the cost of commuter rail is too high.

Millenials are choosing where to live before they choose where to work, and they’re overwhelming choosing to live in cities with good public transit, with jobs and economic growth following them. (And it’s not just Millenials, as Baby Boomers are increasingly looking to move back to cities as well.) New Hampshire is losing more young people than almost any other state. If that doesn’t change, it will start losing jobs as well. Connecting the state’s two largest cities and economic hubs (not to mention its major airport) to Boston would help change that outflow, and in the process lead to a better future, a better economy, and a higher quality-of-life for Manchester and New Hampshire.

Comparison of the Capitol Corridor options studied, showing the Manchester Regional Rail is the best bang for NH's buck
Comparison of the Capitol Corridor options studied, showing the Manchester Regional Rail is the best bang for NH’s buck

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