N.H. governor opens bridge for commuter rail expansion study

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Lowell Sun

LOWELL — The prospect of extending commuter rail lines through Lowell and into several New Hampshire cities looks stronger after Gov. Chris Sununu, who has long voiced concerns about rail expansion, reportedly expressed support for a study to examine the idea.

Sununu said last week that he felt it worthwhile to spent $4 million of federal grant money to look at potential expansions of the state’s rail lines, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported. Sununu’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Sun.

In 2015, the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority completed a two-year study and suggested connecting the MBTA line that runs through Lowell to a New Hampshire line with stops in Nashua, Manchester and Concord. EJ Powers, a Manchester business owner and rail-expansion advocate who hadworked for the NHRTA, said the new study to which Sununu referred would serve as a “comprehensive analysis” on how such the project might unfold.

Sununu criticized the idea of commuter rail expansion during his campaign. However, he appears to have warmed to the idea because rail access factored into New Hampshire’s unsuccessful bid to host Amazon’s second headquarters.

“I continue to have genuine concerns regarding the long-term, financial viability of such an expansive project,” Sununu said in a statement to the Concord Monitor last week. “However, the recent process of drafting New Hampshire’s groundbreaking Amazon proposal has demonstrated the need to study the potential options.

The state’s rail transit authority “firmly support(s)” the proposed study, NHRTA Advisory Committee Chair Nicolas Lazos said in a statement.

“This process, which will occur without spending state general fund dollars, will provide the public and policymakers with the data needed to make an informed decision whether to proceed with the rail expansion project,” Lazos said.

Three of the five members of the state’s Executive Council pushed for the latest feasibility study, which would be conducted using federal dollars. Sununu formalized the request in the 10-year transportation plan he sent to the state Legislature.

His proposal is likely to meet some opposition from conservatives in the Republican-majority legislature, which would need to approve the study.

Advocates have been pursuing an expansion for years, arguing that connecting New Hampshire’s major cities to Boston and other Massachusetts communities would stimulate the local economy and improve quality of life.

“There’s already a private appetite out there,” Powers said. “I view this as an opportunity to see how strong that appetite is and see what other businesses are out there that might be interested in taking this next step.”

The 2015 study by the NHRTA estimated that a Lowell-to-Manchester expansion would create 230 construction jobs, 3,390 jobs as a result of real-estate development and 1,730 new jobs per year starting in 2030. About 668,000 yearly weekday riders might use such a system, the study found.

The project could cost $245 million, the NHRTA said, although that figure could be lower based on commitments from the MBTA and federal sources.

In a statement, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo did not say specifically whether the Massachusetts agency supports plans to link with New Hampshire lines, but he did say a study is “considering demographic changes and other trends which will identify the most cost effective strategies for leveraging the MBTA’s extensive rail network to increase ridership and better meet the transportation and economic growth needs of the region.”

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess has been one of the most outspoken supporters of the push. He proposed a public-private partnership with Boston Surface Railroad Company that the Board of Aldermen approved in October. The company is exploring linking a rail line from Worcester to Bedford, New Hampshire, with stops in Lowell and Nashua.

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