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Nashua's mayor enthusiastic advocate for rail system

Sunday News Correspondent

January 12. 2013 11:34PM

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau talks about her vision for bringing rail back to Nashua and New Hampshire. (KIMBERLY HOUGHTON/Union Leader Correspondent)

NASHUA - Mayor Donnalee Lozeau is passionate about bringing passenger and freight rail back to New Hampshire, an initiative that she has spent countless hours advocating for despite criticism from some state officials.

Last week, her efforts paid off when the Capital Budget Overview Committee approved using state toll credits to match a federal grant that will fund a $1.9 million rail feasibility study.

From the time Lozeau began her campaign for mayor, she has voiced support for bringing rail from Boston into Nashua. While the proposed study only addresses passenger rail, Lozeau said freight rail would also be incredibly beneficial to southern New Hampshire.

"Economic development is not just about the employees we can have in the state, but about businesses getting their goods over the rail line," she told the Sunday News on Thursday.

She isn't oblivious to the opposition surrounding the rail initiative and said she understands that some representatives are not convinced that rail is affordable in New Hampshire.

What is more important, she said, is finding out the exact price tag of bringing train tracks from Boston into Nashua and even farther north into Concord. While there are old cost estimates of the Capitol Corridor rail project upwards of $300 million, Lozeau acknowledged that those are outdated figures.

"The greatest challenge facing this nation - aside from its debt - is the crumbling infrastructure and the cost to maintain highways and bridges. We need to pay attention to the cost of that and the cost of fuel. Rail has to be a piece of that picture," said Lozeau. "Our Boston Express bus is full to Boston on almost all of its runs. It is operating in the black, so that tells you that people are willing to use other modes of transportation. We have to look at transporting people. We are a very mobile society."

The rail study

Wednesday's vote in Concord to allow the use of toll credits to help fund the rail study will still need approval from the Executive Council next month to move forward. A similar rail study proposal was rejected by the Executive Council last year when District 5 Councilor David Wheeler cast the deciding vote.

Wheeler, however, has since been ousted by Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, who has already voiced support for the project.

"Actually, I do think we have the crystal ball in this instance, and the reason is because the members of the council have talked about whether they support rail or don't support rail," said Lozeau. " . We know that we have three votes for certain."

While Lozeau is in favor of bringing rail into Nashua and up to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, she will reserve judgment on whether the tracks should extend as far north as Concord until the study is completed and she can compare costs.

The communities along the way should weigh in on the matter, according to Lozeau, who noted a previous study indicating about 75 percent of New Hampshire residents would like to see trains back in the state.

Wheeler, however, encouraged city officials last year to look at the big picture.

"It is very easy to be for something if you are not willing to pay for it," Wheeler told the Board of Aldermen after being blasted for not supporting the rail study last March. ?". We don't have the money for that study. It is not feasible."

At the time, Wheeler said he respects the mayor and aldermen, but maintained that not all Nashua residents support the idea of bringing rail back to the state. He claimed it would cost about $300 million to bring train tracks from Lowell, Mass., to Concord, adding the money would have to be borrowed from China and that his own grandchildren would end up paying for the project.

Wheeler maintained that the funds necessary for the rail study are competing with other funds for education and health and human services expenditures. He argued that even one train track would not be sufficient, maintaining a parallel track has been recommended.

During a previous study in 2003, it was determined that about $70 million would need to be spent to improve existing tracks from Lowell to Nashua, estimating that about $10 million a year in subsidies would be necessary for rail to be operational from those same two communities.

"There is no transportation out there that isn't subsidized today - that is just the reality," Lozeau said last week. "Planes, trains, buses and cars - everything is subsidized. I think that you can't look at it by itself."

Future train station

But the mayor doesn't just want a train to travel through Nashua, she ultimately wants to have a train stop in the city so that residents can easily take advantage of passenger rail. Her vision includes a park-and-ride station at 25 Crown St. near East Hollis Street in Nashua.

Although this may seem like a pie-in-the-sky idea, her proposal is gaining momentum as the same Capital Budget Overview Committee also approved using state toll credits - in addition to a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Grant - to help the city acquire the $1.4 million property on Crown Street.

"We don't have to use any local dollars. It is the perfect opportunity," said Lozeau, adding the Crown Street property is the only area in the city that has 800 feet of straight track in the downtown area.

There are still several hoops that will have to be jumped for the proposed train station to become a reality, including approval from several city and state entities. But now that the rail study is back on track, Lozeau said that momentum hopefully will help move other projects forward - including the park-and-ride station and an even bigger proposal to build a new southbound off-ramp at Exit 36 of the F.E. Everett Turnpike, which would include a multimodal transit center there in Tyngsborough, Mass.

A study by the Nashua Regional Planning Commission is already under way to pursue this idea, which has been unanimously supported by selectmen in Tyngsborough, according to Lozeau.

Acknowledging that the cost could be significant, she believes there could be a financial benefit if the two states partner together on the transportation project, as access to other highway funds could become available and potentially mitigate some of the cost.

She said the new ramp and transit center would allow for more economic development in Tyngsborough and also decrease traffic congestion in the Spit Brook Road and Daniel Webster Highway area near Exit 1 in Nashua.

"New Hampshire is one of the few states that doesn't have a functioning rail system for commuter and freight," she said. "I don't think New Hampshire should be the doughnut hole - the only state that doesn't have rail."

At a time when young people are considering whether to stay or go, Nashua should be trying to entice young generations to remain here, said the mayor. This region, according to Lozeau, has some of the highest per-capita software engineers and advanced engineers that critically need transportation flexibility. Companies in the Greater Nashua area, specifically those housed at the Nashua Technology Park at Exit 1, need an environment to grow and succeed, said Lozeau, adding train is just one piece of that puzzle.

"Our bus service last year - just the Nashua City Bus - provided 537,000 rides. We have a lot of people in this community that don't have a vehicle," she said. "There are companies in Burlington and Nashua, and they move their employees back and forth. Those are things we should be thinking about."

Previously, the Nashua Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to support rail, and Lozeau is optimistic that the study will be approved and completed so local officials will have the opportunity to look at the newly estimated dollar amount and determine whether it would be beneficial for the city to pursue. ?While some people in Nashua have implied that the mayor wants rail to be her ultimate legacy to the city, Lozeau said she doesn't want a single project or initiative to become her bequest.

"If I have a legacy, I think what I would like people to say is that she was a straight shooter who got things done, and the thing that was special about it was how she got it done - my approach," said the mayor.

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