Boston to Manchester rail study: $782 million to build, $17 million a year to run

Feb. 26—MANCHESTER — Restoring commuter rail service from Boston through Manchester would cost $782 million to build and $17 million a year to operate, according to a new draft study done for the Department of Transportation.

Claiming fares could cover 82% of that operating budget, the 80-page consultant's report concludes the annual state taxpayer subsidy could be as low as $200,000 and as high as $3.5 million depending on how many use the service.

The report assumes host communities would spend up to $63 million to build new train stations south of Granite Street in Manchester, a layover train facility in Manchester and a train station on Crown Street near downtown Nashua.

Both cities would spend about $200,000 annually to run those stations, the report concludes.

The Manchester-Boston Regional Airport would operate and maintain a third train station nearby in Bedford.

The state Department of Transportation would pay to build and run the southernmost train station next to the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua near the Massachusetts border.

"The proposed schedule in southern New Hampshire includes 16 trips in each direction on weekdays (and roughly half that number on weekends/holidays) with an estimated travel time between Manchester and Boston North Station of 1 hour and 25 minutes and 1 hour and 30 minutes," said the study done by AECOM Technical Services of Manchester.

The state's share of construction costs would be up to $185 million while the state of Massachusetts would have to pay for about $125 million in upgrades to the 9.5 miles of tracks from Lowell to Nashua.

Federal grants would cover at least 55% of all construction costs, the study said.

Four years for ridership to mature

The Union Leader obtained a copy of the study that Transportation Commissioner Bill Cass delivered to the state Executive Council, Gov. Chris Sununu and legislative leaders late last week.

The study concludes that once opened in 2030, it would take four years for ridership to reach full levels due to the impact of COVID-19.

In response to the pandemic, the number of citizens taking trains to work across the U.S. dropped dramatically as more Americans worked from home.

For example, there are only 58% as many taking the train from Lowell to Boston every day as did back in 2018.

The study promotes a "medium pandemic impact" scenario that 75% of riders would end up taking this train compared to the level that had been expected prior to COVID-19.

If this proves to be the case, the state taxpayer cost to run this service would start at $14 million in 2031 but drop to $200,000 by 2034.

If the ridership is a "high pandemic impact," then those taking the train will only be 58% of those levels expected prior to COVID-19.

This would mean the cost to operate would start at $17 million in the first year and that would drop to $3.5 million by 2035, the study said.

Last month, the Republican-led Executive Council refused to allow the consultant to have until the end of June to complete this report.

As a result, the consultant will not spend about $300,000 of its $5.5 million contract.

Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford and a longtime opponent of the project, said the construction price tag has gotten much higher than previous studies.

"I was expecting a financial boondoggle and that is exactly (what) the plan has come up with in my view," Wheeler said.

He said Nashua taxpayers would have to finance at least $21 million in station construction costs.

"I think people are going to get sticker shock when they realize how much this will cost them in higher property taxes," Wheeler said.

Legislative backers still reviewing report

Nashua and Manchester mayors, majorities on their boards of aldermen and business leaders are prominent supporters of the project.

Officials in both cities are considering creating tax increment financing districts to help pay for the construction work.

A spokesperson for Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester said she had not seen the report but remains a strong "advocate" for it.

House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm of Manchester, who also has supported the project in the past, declined comment until he had reviewed the entire report.

Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity, said it should convince policymakers to abandon the idea.

"When you consider that this train takes longer to get to Boston than driving, is very expensive and requires New Hampshire to work with among the most incompetent government agencies around — the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) — the case for commuter rail is collapsing," Moore said in a statement.

"This was predictable from the start. There was never a good reason to try to bring a 19th century transportation alternative and sell it as a 21st century solution."

Drew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, said the ridership estimates were wildly optimistic.

He noted fares covered only 40% of revenue for MBTA's train service in 2019 and that fell to 14% last year.

"Who thinks it's a good idea to spend $800 million to build commuter rail from a sparsely populated state to a shrinking city when the number of people who say they want to make a daily commute is also shrinking?" Cline asked rhetorically.