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Railway revival a step closer to reality

Legislature's creation of authority could lead to passenger service by 2010

For four decades, efforts to revive commuter rail travel through New Hampshire's central corridor have sputtered and died time and again.

But now, rail boosters and others say that commuters will be chugging along as soon as 2010 with the New Hampshire Legislature's creation of an authority charged with developing and managing the return of passenger service from Lowell through Nashua and Manchester.

The 25-member authority is considered the linchpin in returning commuter rail to the state. The authority will be empowered to make contracts, collect money, and carry on other required business for the commuter rail. But equally important, boosters say, the authority sends a message to potential funding sources that New Hampshire is committed to commuter rail.

"This gives us the opportunity to say we are in the rail business for real and here is the organization that will be representing New Hampshire," said Stephen Williams , executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, a key backer of resurrected rail in the state.

Currently, the only passenger train access to New Hampshire from the south is the Amtrak Downeaster that starts in Boston and ends in Portland, making New Hampshire stops in Dover, Durham, and Exeter. It is considered passenger rail, not commuter rail, because it makes a limited number of trips. The rail lines leading from Lowell to Nashua and Manchester now are used for freight.

The Legislature has approved the authority's creation, and Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, is committed to signing the bill.

"To reduce congestion on our highways, the governor feels that it's important that we ex plore expanding commuter rail in New Hampshire," said Colin Manning, a spokesman for Lynch. "This legislation is a significant step forward."

For fans of rail, the move has elicited hosannas.

"Within two years, you will hear the whistle blow," said state Representative Jim Ryan , a Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "That represents the future."

Critics, though, say the authority's structure is financially dubious and fundamentally flawed. State Representative Neal Kurk , a member of the House Finance Committee, said the legislation does not identify funding sources for the rail, leaving the state vulnerable to having to come up with the money should funding not come through from other entities, like the federal government.

The estimated cost of the capital improvements needed for the Manchester/Nashua corridor rail is $77 million, officials say. The federal government has committed $24 million so far, leaving $53 million. Under federal rules, state and local authorities must commit at least 20 percent of the funding.

Kurk also said that drivers are unlikely to switch to rail because their travel time on the train is not likely to radically diminish.

"It's basically someone's pipe dream that if you build it, they will come," said Kurk, a Republican, who said he would be in favor of exploring high-speed rail, a more costly option.

Williams countered that commuters will switch to rail if there is a cost savings for them, which he says there will be, particularly if Boston parking is added to the cost of a commute.

The University of New Hampshire Survey Center, in a survey conducted for the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, found that almost all commuters who travel to Boston once a month or more said they would take passenger rail if available. The survey found that while fares and schedules will determine the actual number of riders, there are 28,510 potential riders statewide and 18,939 in the Nashua/Manchester rail corridor.

New Hampshire has been without daily service between Nashua and Boston since 1967. Multiple efforts have been made to revive the service, none successful. In 1981, a year-long pilot project ended with a nationwide cancellation of such projects. At other times, the reintroduction has been mired in questions about service schedules, station locations, and debate over who should operate the service and pay for its development.

Traffic studies have shown that Route 3 and Interstate 93 handle upwards of 165,000 vehicles per day at the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Currently, the morning commute from Nashua to Boston -- spanning about 45 miles -- can take up to two hours.

The proposed passenger rail would provide shuttle service on existing rails between southern New Hampshire and the existing Gallagher Terminal in Lowell. The rail lines would be updated and improved. Stations along the route are expected to include downtown Manchester, Manchester Airport, and southern Nashua. Currently, planners are considering a Nashua station at the junction of the Daniel Webster Highway and Spit Brook Road.

The proposed rail schedule would offer three southbound morning trips and three northbound evening trips, as well as an additional mid-day round trip. The passenger rail schedule will be coordinated with existing commuter bus services from Nashua and Manchester.

There remain a number of challenges. Foremost is securing the funding. Rail enthusiasts suffered a major setback on the funding front when the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled three years ago that an amendment to the state constitution barred the state from using gas tax revenue for rail.

The state is also grappling with whether to impose a liability cap for passenger rail travel. And it must negotiate with the rail lines' right-of-way owner, Pan Am Railways.

But boosters are hopeful that the rail authority will maneuver the hurdles swiftly.

"It gives us the ability to move forward," said Kathy Hersh, Nashua's community development director.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

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