Category Archives: Transit

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.

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

If you build it, they will ride

Market Basket provides one of the only bike racks on Elm Street, but it gets plenty of use. – photo by Will Stewart

When a group of people met a week-and-a-half ago at Milly’s Tavern to discuss bicycle infrastructure in Manchester, they had to speak in hypotheticals about the future, because infrastructure for bicyclists–bike lanes, racks, and so on–in the Queen City is essentially nonexistent. When you visit cities from Concord to Portsmouth, Boston to Montreal, Amsterdam to Portland Berlin, Portland, Ore. to Portland, Me., what you’ll find are cities that are expanding their bicycle infrastructure to enable more residents, visitors and workers to get around by bike, whether for recreation, exercise or daily commuting. And by offering people of all skills the opportunity to get around by bike, they’re reducing traffic, improving the health and safety of their residents, and increasing their quality-of-life.

Bike lanes separated from auto traffic in Montreal–something like this could work in Manchester on certain wider streets like Canal or Valley. – photo by Paul Smith

Manchester has been pathetically behind the curve when it comes to bicycling for years now. Despite calls for bike lanes and other bicycling infrastructure in official planning documents like the city’s 2010 master plan and the 2006 Neighborhood Initiatives plan for Rimmon Heights, little if any of it has been accomplished.

The one bright spot has been the work of Manchester Moves, which has built the Piscataquog Trail through the West Side, connecting Goffstown to the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium via the Hands Across the Merrimack bridge, and the South Manchester Trail running from South Beech to Gold Street. The trails are wonderful additions to the city, but because they exist mostly within residential neighborhoods, they remain almost strictly recreational trails. A resident of the West Side riding to work downtown along the trails, for instance, would have to cross no less than seven lanes of busy traffic at Granite Street without any provision for cyclists after crossing the Merrimack. It’s clear then that while they are great assets for the city, the trails on their own are not enough; they need to tie into a network of bike lanes, designated alternate routes for bicyclists, and places to lock up bikes across town. Continue reading If you build it, they will ride


Nearly a year ago, LivableMHT decried the incredibly shortsighted 3-2 decision by the Executive Council to not go forward with a study of the Capitol Corridor commuter rail project, which would have been funded nearly entirely through federal grants.

Today, however, the new pro-rail majority on the Executive Council voted 4-1 to conduct the study, putting commuter rail in the Merrimack Valley back on track. Only two members of the Executive Council were also serving last year–longtime councilor Ray Burton, a Republican representing the North Country, and Chris Sununu, also a Republican, who represents the Rockingham County suburbs, including Exeter, home to one of the busiest rail stations north of Boston. Both councilors’ votes were unchanged from last year–Burton joining the three newly elected Democrats (who hail from the state’s three largest cities and presumably future rail stations: Manchester, Nashua and Concord) in favor of the study, and Sununu now the lone vote against what could be one of the state’s biggest economic development tools in the coming decades.

If Sununu had listened to the vast majority of New Hampshire residents and the vocal business groups in the state, the study could be under way already. While New Hampshire has lost a year, it is reassuring that the rail study is back on track, and that it no longer looks like New Hampshire will be passed by when it comes to rail improvements, which are crucial to freight traffic, and attracting and retaining young people, businesses, tourists and students.

In today’s Union Leader, Councilor Colin Van Ostern (Democrat of Concord, representing District 2) explains why he supports the Capitol Corridor project:

The Capitol Corridor rail project is back on track again. The rail and transit study that was halted by last year’s Executive Council now has strong, bipartisan support that reflects its popularity with business leaders and New Hampshire residents alike. The study will very likely pass shortly and be completed by the end of next year.

 

But this resuscitated study alone won’t determine rail’s fate in New Hampshire. To prevent another political derailment in the future, we must think ahead:

 

–Judge rail based on overall economic development, not ridership alone. Earlier this month, an executive from the largest private employer in Concord and another from the fastest-growing startup in Manchester each pled the case for rail to me – separately – using almost the same words, hours apart: “Help us grow, bring new workers to the area and reduce barriers between us and Boston so New Hampshire’s advantages shine even brighter,” each said.

 

They both want rail because of its overall economic impact and they recognize that rail boosts their own (and the state’s) economic growth. This is the prize – and it is far larger than the economic bump from rail line construction jobs or the loss from covering operating costs.

 

–Secure a long-term, bipartisan vision, not stop-and-go development. When one party alone controlled the fate of rail in Concord last year, the project stalled (and by the way, that opposition cost some lawmakers their seats). Now, rail is back on track because Democrats and Republicans are working together to re-start this study. If the past decade is a guide, the Republican and Democratic parties will each have their day in the sun in our state before this project is done – so we need to embrace this as a practical issue, not a partisan one. We’re in this together.

 

–Benefit the whole state, not just one community. The strongest case for rail – both economically and politically – is one that benefits as many New Hampshire residents as possible. Bridging Boston with Nashua’s businesses, Merrimack’s outlets, Manchester’s airport and Concord’s connections to the lakes and North Country would fill the hole left by today’s existing rail lines along our state’s Eastern and Western borders. Ideologically driven opponents of rail want to stake one region of the state against another, but what’s best for New Hampshire is a transit plan that benefits all of us.

 

–Consider our transportation infrastructure as a whole, not just a stand-alone project. Rail must succeed as part of a well-planned transportation web that connects Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, an expanded I-93 and a rapidly-growing bus network across the state. Less traffic, more mobility and more commerce with our neighbors to the south creates a strong foundation for economic growth in New Hampshire. Both our bus lines and the Downeaster rail line in the Seacoast are setting records and stand to gain from the amplification rail provides.

 

There’s no question that the promise of rail for New Hampshire is huge: attracting new workers for growing New Hampshire businesses; delivering tourists, shoppers and business visitors to our state; lessening traffic on I-93; easing commutes; and amplifying the growth of new Granite State bus routes and the Manchester-Boston Regional airport.

 

There are also significant costs to building and operating rail, and the coming study should shed some light on the costs of transit options in the Capitol Corridor. Once that study is completed, we must take an objective and comprehensive look at how those costs stack up against the tremendous economic benefits of rail.

 

This year won’t produce a final decision on rail, but it will lay the foundation for whether that ultimate decision is made the right way. If we focus on economic development; if we set aside partisanship, if we focus on New Hampshire as a whole; and if we take a holistic look at our transportation systems; we’ll stay back on track this time.


This post is one in an ongoing LivableMHT series, Livable/Unlovable, that will comment on proposals, projects and other topics that are either good (Livable) or bad (Unlovable)  from a livability/urban development viewpoint.

Manchester needs a transportation plan for the 21st century

Forty years ago, traffic planners envisioned replacing now-vibrant neighborhoods with massive highway overpasses in Boston – photo from Cambridge Historical Society

This November marks forty years since Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent cancelled all highway projects, notably the massive “Inner Belt,” within the 128/I-95 ring around Boston and replaced the cancelled highways with new transit projects. The results are unmistakable: 3,800 private homes were saved, there is a bustling innovation district at Kendall Square instead of a highway interchange, and Boston weathered the Great Recession better than almost anywhere else in the country, in large part by being a desirable urban place to live, work, study and visit.

Nothing as disruptive as the Inner Belt has ever been proposed in Manchester, and downtown Manchester is doing much better than the highway-scarred downtowns in Hartford, Springfield, Worcester and elsewhere in New England. But as the planning study for I-293 north of the new Granite Street interchange kicks off, it’s a good time to start thinking about transportation funding in New Hampshire, and the integration of transportation and planning in Manchester.

Does Manchester really need wider highways? Or with limited funds, would a better local and regional transit system better serve Manchester residents and spur more economic development? And when new transportation improvements are made like the recent interchange at Granite Street, shouldn’t zoning and planning be updated, so that the city gets something more than a suburban-style Dunkin Donuts at such a prominent urban gateway? Continue reading Manchester needs a transportation plan for the 21st century

Future MTA: Imagining a better bus system for Manchester

Manchester’s red, white and blue MTA buses with the iconic MTA logo.

If you’ve ever ridden the MBTA, known as the “T”, in Boston, you’re probably aware of its strengths–frequent and relatively cheap service, coverage of most of Boston and Cambridge’s densest neighborhoods and biggest sites, reasonable hours from early morning until late at night 365 days a year.

You’re probably also aware of some of its weaknesses, not least of which is its hub-and-spoke subway system–to get from Allston to Harvard Square by car or bike, you can simply cross a short bridge over the Charles River; to get there by subway, you’d have to take a Green Line trolley 3 1/2 miles into the heart of Boston, and switch to the Red Line for another 3 1/2 miles back out to Harvard Square.

For the past few years, FutureMBTA has compiled maps–of actual proposals and imagined ones–that show ways to improve the T system.

LivableMHT began after an initial, imagined proposal for a streetcar system in the Queen City, and we’ve been glad to see the MTA making big improvements within its modest budget, such as the free Green DASH bus, which follows a loop similar to the heart of our streetcar proposal. And a few months ago, we thought about some improvements that could be made to the current MTA system.

All that got us thinking–why not imagine a Future MTA–what would an ideal, but still realistic MTA bus system look like?

Burlington, VT’s handsome CCTA buses run more frequently and more extensive in a city barely a third the size of Manchester.

Portland and Burlington–the largest cities in Maine and Vermont–combined have fewer residents than Manchester. They are both farther from other mid-sized cities, such as Nashua, and major urban centers like Metro Boston. Yet, they both have more extensive transit systems, with longer hours and more frequent service. Burlington’s CCTA bus system is also cheaper to ride than the MTA and Portland’s METRO.

Based on experience using those systems, as well as the MTA and the T, LivableMHT has drawn up an imagined bus system that we think Manchester could support if it was funded more like the bus systems in Portland and Burlington.

Continue reading Future MTA: Imagining a better bus system for Manchester

NH near the bottom in transit & pedestrian funding

New Hampshire has topped a lot of good lists in the past several years–best state to raise a family in, healthiest state, safest state, and on and on.

But it’s also near the bottom–or in the case of funding for higher education, at the absolute bottom–on some other lists. It’s not surprising that editorial writers and politicians aren’t rushing out to tell us about the lists where New Hampshire isn’t near the top, but it’s important to know if we want to improve.

One such list is New Hampshire’s rank among the states in funding for transit, and pedestrian and bicycle projects, according to the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).

New Hampshire ranks near the bottom–and far below the rest of New England–in transit funding. Chart from the Transport Politic.

In fact, just 10% of all state funding on all state transportation projects goes to transit, pedestrian and bicycle projects combined. That’s pathetically low compared to almost any state, but especially compared to all other New England states, including our much more rural neighbors in Maine and Vermont.

Continue reading NH near the bottom in transit & pedestrian funding

It’s time to rethink city buses

MTA bus with new bike racks

NPR’s Talk of the Nation is discussing ways to improve the lowly city bus today. In the segment, Will Doig discussed the piece he wrote on Salon about how buses are often overlooked compared to streetcars, subways and other transit options, and how easily the image and experience of the city bus could be improved.

Making people like the bus when not liking the bus is practically an American pastime essentially means making the bus act and feel more like a train. … When people say they don’t like the bus but they do like the train, what they really mean is they like those perks the train offers. But there’s no reason bus systems can’t simply incorporate most of them.

Much of Doig’s piece focuses on the benefits of bus rapid transit (BRT), but he also discusses improvements that smaller cities like Manchester can make to their bus transit systems, which should build ridership and offset costs. Still, he says frequency–something that is often mentioned as a desired improvement to the MTA bus system–is key.

“All the speed-it-up tweaks in the world won’t mean much on a bus route that runs twice an hour, however.”

Twice an hour sounds pretty good compared to the MTA routes, all of which run every hour with the exception of the much more frequent (and free) Green DASH downtown circulator.

With statewide budget cuts, a legislature that shows no interest in promoting public transit whatsoever, and the City issuing its first budget to comply with the recently enacted tax cap, now may not seem like a good time to look at improving the bus system in Manchester. But Doig explains that investing in transit can have payoffs in increased ridership, and increased transit ridership can lead to greater economic development and certainly a more livable city.

And in the last few years, the MTA has already been making some positive improvements despite the budget woes.

The MTA's free and frequent Green DASH downtown loop bus

Initiating the Green DASH service, which runs every 10 minutes during peak hours on a downtown loop, is probably the biggest improvement to the city’s public transit since the MTA became a city authority in 1973. Shortly after launching the Green DASH, the MTA began running the weekday #1 Healthcare Shuttle route, connecting the major hospitals and medical centers scattered across on the East Side for the first time that we’re aware of. And in an effort to connect Manchester with the other major cities of the Merrimack Valley, the MTA now runs four trips daily to Nashua and two to Concord.

Continue reading It’s time to rethink city buses

Unlovable: Exec. Council stops rail transit study


LivableMHT has made a point to remain non-partisan and to delve into politics only as much as it directly affects livability and urban development in Manchester. Today, we are taking a break from that policy to decry the embarrassingly shortsighted 3-2 vote of the Executive Council to reject federal and private funding for a commuter rail feasibility study for the Capitol Corridor.

According to Nashua Patch, Councilor Dan St. Hilaire who represents the Concord area was the deciding vote against the accepting the funds for the study:

“I don’t think it’s the right time in this economy,” said Councilor Dan St. Hilaire. “We made the decision to expand I-93, and not rail. We need to be consistent.”

This study would not have cost the state a penny–and it would have given work to two in-state contractors. It would have studied the feasibility of commuter rail between Concord and Boston–with stops in Manchester and Nashua, and at Manchester Airport–as well as alternatives. It would not have committed the state to implement any of its findings, or to spend any money in the future. We don’t think it’s likely, but it may have even concluded that commuter rail would not be feasible for New Hampshire. Continue reading Unlovable: Exec. Council stops rail transit study

Exec. Council to vote tomorrow on commuter rail study

Potential Capitol Corridor commuter rail route - image from NHBTI

As a UNH survey last year and a meeting in Nashua last night have shown, there is overwhelming support across the state–and from the business community–for the Capitol Corridor commuter rail project, which would run from Concord to Boston.

Support is less clear among the Executive Council, which will vote tomorrow on whether to approve a contract to study the project. The study will not cost the state any money, and it will be conducted by in-state contractors. Commuter rail is essential to the future economic competitiveness of southern New Hampshire, and to ensuring that the area remains a desirable place to live, work and visit. This study is vital to showing that, and to moving forward with commuter rail.

Please contact your Executive Council and urge them to approval this crucial study, reminding them that it will cost the state nothing, and will not commit it to do anything in the future.

If you live in the Manchester area, your Executive Council is former mayor Raymond Wieczorek, but it may make more sense to contact Councilor Daniel St. Hilaire, who represents the Concord area, and has indicated that he is undecided but leaning against approving the study.

Please contact them today–tomorrow will be too late!

Riders boarding the Green DASH bus - photo from the MTA

The Union Leader has coverage of a publicity event for the MTA’s Green DASH–green for its environmental benefits and DASH for Downtown Area SHuttle–downtown circulator bus service yesterday. The event was put on by the MTA and the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce to relaunch and promote the free, figure-eight loop service, which runs every 10 minutes during peak times and 20 minutes off-peak through the Millyard and Downtown from 7am-7pm weekdays.

The MTA has photos of the event on their Facebook page.

Riders on the Green DASH bus - photo from MTA

According to the article, the bus service–originally simply called the Downtown Circulator–reached a high ridership mark of 3,500 monthly boardings in November 2010, but dropped to 1,600 in August 2011, when it was re-branded as the Green DASH. Boardings have rebounded some, reaching 2,200 in December 2011. The event yesterday aimed to boost awareness of the service, and hopefully ridership given its convenience compared to walking from distant points downtown or looking for parking.

The re-branding also included a new wrapper by MESH Interactive Agency of Nashua, replacing the old black-and-white historical images of the city with brighter colors, transparent windows, and elements to highlight the hybrid buses and that the service is free.

MTA Director Mike Whitten discussing the Green DASH with Mayor Ted Gatsas to his left - photo from MTA

If you haven’t used the service, you should really hop on next time you’re downtown. It’s a comfortable, convenient ride; and in this cold winter weather, it will save trekking across downtown or driving around for multiple parking spots. Ideally, the service would be extended–running less frequently–to serve diners and bar-goers downtown, even if only during certain nights of the week or around major downtown events, but as it stands the service is great for downtown workers, residents and daytime visitors.