When Amy Dattner Levy moved to New Hampshire five years ago from New York City, she wasn’t thinking about transportation and how things were about to change.
“One of the biggest changes for me is the dependency on a car,” said Dattner Levy.
Dattner Levy, who moved here with her husband, Rabbi Peter Levy, asked us to look into a question for her:
“What are the greatest obstacles that keep New Hampshire from creating a) an inter-city bus system and b) a commuter rail that could connect into the commuter rail that goes into Boston?”
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“In parts of New York City, like other major metro areas, it can be a nightmare to own a car. But people also have public transit options.
"When you think about wanting to keep young people in the state, or encourage young people to come into the state, both of those would be very important,” Dattner Levy said.
Now that she’s retired, she’s also thought about how people like her get around.
“And when you think about seniors, the high percentage of seniors that live in the state, once they stop driving, how do you get from place to place,” asked Dattner Levy. “You feel very limited. You feel very isolated.”
In some parts of the state, like Manchester, inter-city service is already happening.
“You can ride back and forth between Concord, you can go to Nashua, you can ride all of our local buses all for that same five bucks,” said Mike Whitten, Executive Director of the Manchester Transit Authority, or MTA.
In 2011, with the help of federal stimulus funds, MTA started an intercity service called the Zipline, connecting Manchester to Nashua.Three years later, MTA added a second line to Concord.
Besides the intercity service, MTA has also extended the hours of some of its in-city routes by up to four hours; launched services to Hooksett and Goffstown; and as of October 1st, merged with and taken over the operation of the public transit service in Derry, Londonderry, and Salem.
What makes these service expansions all the more unexpected is that MTA has been doing this without receiving any state money for more than a decade. The other states that don’t provide public transit funding are Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“We’re definitely different from Vermont, Massachusetts and our other neighbors,” said Whitten.
New Hampshire ranks 44th in state spending per capita on public transit. This past budget included a little over $200,000 for urban agencies to split amongst themselves. One director said while the money was greatly appreciated, it’s also “pitifully low.”
And it’s not only the urban agencies feeling that pinch.
Brenda Gagne is the Director of Tri-County Community Action Program Incorporated, or TCCAP, the transit agency that serves Coos, Carrol, and Grafton counties - the three largest counties in the state by size.
“Because we are so geographically challenged we can’t run an intercity route like Concord or Manchester can,” Gagne said.
The thing to know about these smaller, rural agencies is that while the funding challenges are similar, it can be a lot more difficult to fundraise. Gagne said the state money in the most recent budget doesn’t add up to much in her region but it does provide some relief.
Gagne relies on what’s referred to as the match system to fund her community transit. Like MTA, TCCAP has to raise up to 50% of their operations budget, on their own, to qualify for federal money. If they meet the match, they get the money.
“If we were never able to make our match then we would lose our funding,” Gagne said. “We’ve been fortunate to make our match, not with a lot left, but we’ve been able to make it.”
To raise money, Gagne sells ads on buses, seeks private donations, and asks local towns to pitch in. What this means is that directors like Gagne can spend a lot more time securing funding than managing their agencies.
Rural transit systems like TTCAP are unusual, though. According to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, 48 of the state’s 244 communities have no transit options whatsoever. To put it plainly, the more rural the place you live, the less likely you are to have public transit.
“The passengers that we serve, we are their meal tonight. We are their job today. We’re their medical appointment and their well-being,” said Gange. “We are the reason they’re able to socialize every day when they’re all by themselves and in the house. We’re in a very big part their lifeline to the outside world.”
While public transit plays a critical role in people’s lives is critical, the lack of funding isn’t just a state problem in New Hampshire. In 2017, our nation’s public transit received a D minus from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That was the lowest grade of any U.S. infrastructure.
Investment in transit has some surprising returns. A 2015 Harvard report found a direct link between access to efficient, reliable transit and upward economic mobility.
There’s all that time people spend in travel could be spent on professional development, networking, or continuing education. For low-income individuals without their own cars, long commute times can be crippling to career advancement and earning potential, all of which disproportionately affects people of color, the eldery, and people with disabilities.
And the longer it takes for people to become self-sufficient, the longer taxpayers pay for social services.
“It’s the same with healthcare, if you can provide access so that people can get to their regular doctor’s appointments they get pre-emptive medical care,” said Mike Whitten, MTA Executive Director. “And if they’re uninsured who’s picking up the cost for that emergency room visit? You don’t always see those connectors of healthcare and transit, or job access and transit, but it’s always there right below the surface.”
The state’s own DOT findings show that public transit systems don’t have the resources to sustain themselves at a time when demands on the system are growing. The state’s senior population, for one, will double in the next twenty years in every county, a group that’s already estimated to need almost two million rides a year. Second, there’s an exploding demand for services outlined by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). One agency says their ADA demands grew by 880% over the past decade, without seeing the same percentage increase in funding.
“You know it’s an assumption that if you’re disabled, your thing is to stay at home and not do anything,” said Concord-resident John Jackson. “And I try to break that, and try to get people out there and working and being independent.”
Jackson is 27 and disabled. He uses a wheelchair to get around. Most mornings, you can find him on the bus in Concord heading to work. Jackson lives less than two blocks from his bus stop but some mornings, he leaves his house almost a full hour before the bus arrives.
“I don’t have to work. I’m on disability,” said Jackson. “I could just stay home, collect a check, and be fine, but I want to be active in my community, working, contributing, paying taxes, and all that, and the town’s not making it any easier.”
Jackson says the streets by his apartment usually don’t get shoveled until 8am. And on some days, getting to the bus and riding the bus to work round-trip, can take up to three hours.
But even as the time he spends in transit can be absurd, public transit saves him thousands of dollars each year. That’s because each ride on Concord’s public transit system costs $1.25.
“If I took a taxi [to work] it would be $22 roundtrip,” Jackson said. “That’s a huge difference. That’s thousands of dollars difference that on my current income I would not be able to afford, period.”
Quality public transit also has societal effects.
The American Public Transportation Association reports that every dollar invested in public transportation returns four back to the economy. And for households that could give up a car and instead roll with public transit, they’d save nearly 10 thousand dollars a year. Buses are also 10 times safer than automobiles.
Hasan Minaj’s Netflix series “Patriot Act” recently looked into the state of the nation’s public transit system, finding a decrease in ridership almost nationwide because of the steady cuts in funding local transit agencies.
This leads to a phenomenon known as the “Transit Death Spiral,” where fewer people using public transit means less money for the company. The company, in turn, cuts services or raises fares, and then even fewer people use the service.
MTA’s Mike Whitten says they’ve seen the opposite in Manchester.
“We’ve seen ridership increase and then that supports more service has helped us generate through the private sector additional service which gets more ridership,” explained Whitten. “So we’re doing the reverse of that, the cycle of renewal.”
Some people take public transit because they don’t have any other options. Others are conscious about creating a lifestyle that’s less dependent on a car.
There are almost as many cars on U.S. roads as there are people. Every year, we add more drivers and more cars. A 2018 report from the Global Carbon Project said that cars are as big of a threat to climate as coal-fired power plant. In New Hampshire, cars are the single biggest emitter of carbon.
If you own and drive a car, you might not know about the bus services in your town. And if that’s the case, you may also not know about another transportation push that’s happening.
“So here it is, this is where the railroad tracks are and a potential station for us,” said District 12 State Senator Melanie Levesque, looking over a parking lot adjacent to abandoned mills.
Earlier this year, Senator Levesque, from the Nashua area, introduced a bill to give the state access to federal transportation funds. These funds will be used for the development stage of the proposed “Capitol Corridor” project, the commuter rail line connecting Manchester, Bedford, and Nashua to Boston.
“I’ve heard it from young and older people. People that are retired have told me that they would enjoy getting on the train and going to Boston just for the day,” said Levesque. “Or perhaps their family would be living in the Boston area, and they would come up here. So it would make it a lot easier for them.”
Now despite the name, the Capitol Corridor would not initially connect to Concord. That connection would come later with upgrades made to the old tracks.
Rail used to be big in New Hampshire.
“From about 1840 on we caught railroad fever and everybody wanted to have a railroad and every town in New Hampshire wanted to have one,” said Stu Wallace, a history professor at NHTI.
Wallace says rail helped everything from tourism to industry and even city centers develop in New Hampshire. Concord, for example, saw its greatest decade of growth in the 1840s when rail service came to town.
Back in the 19th century, over three quarters of New Hampshire towns had some rail within their borders. But not everywhere in state was on board with rail.
“The Town of Dorchester for instance had a big diatribe about ‘we don’t want a railroad in our town. It’s horrible, and it’s bad for farming,’” Wallace recalled. “Well, they never got a railroad and good luck finding Dorchester today.”
Back then, the major operator was the Boston & Maine railroad corporation, or B&M. By the late 19th century, Wallace says they had become a full blown monopoly.
“There used to be a saying in the early 20th century that no matter who was elected governor of New Hampshire, the real governor was the president of the B&M railroad,” described Wallace.
But as the 20th century wore on, B&M’s fortunes changed. The company over-extended itself, building more rail than it could maintain. At the same time, cars became more affordable and the state invested in the highway system. And in 1967, B&M cut all passenger service in state with the exception to Haverhill.
“I like to refer to that as the ‘Dark Years,’” said Steve Pesci, referring to the period between the last B&M ride and the return of rail in the state in 2001 with the Amtrak Downeaster.
Pesci, the Special Projects Director at UNH-Durham, has been working on transportation issues for the past 18 years, including overseeing the Downeaster.
The Downeaster, which runs on the old B&M tracks in New Hampshire, is Maine’s version of commuter rail to Boston. The train includes three New Hampshire stops in Dover, Durham, and Exeter.
“It was controversial,” said Pesci, of the train line. “ When you think back to the 90s, it was basically highways, highways, highways.”
Efforts to bring back rail to northern New England were spearheaded in the late 1980s by a group called TrainRiders/Northeast. Maine’s legislators eventually bought in to the plan while New Hampshire stayed on the sidelines, refusing to contribute any state money.
“Boston is going to benefit enormously,” former-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis told a crowd at Boston’s South Station in 2001. “Maine is going to benefit enormously. New England is going to benefit enormously. New Hampshire’s going to have rail service. At long last, New Hampshire is being dragged into the twenty-first century.”
Today, the train’s funding comes from federal money, fare box returns, and kick-ins from local municipalities. New Hampshire’s most recent 10-year state transportation plan includes no money for the Downeaster.
“The University invests to run the station and the platform but it’s probably the best money we spend on transportation on the whole campus. It lets us attract new students. It allows our faculty and staff to have better quality of life. It saves us money from not having to build parking lots,” explained Pesci.
Every year, the Downeaster carries 60,000 passengers from just the Durham station alone. The total number of riders from New Hampshire, including Dover and Exeter, is around a quarter of a million annually.
Polling suggests that people all over the state want commuter options. The latest numbers show that more than three quarters of state residents want to see the Capitol Corridor project built, a number that includes majorities from both political parties.
So if there’s so much public support, what exactly is holding this project up?
One of the major sticking points is the price tag.
Higher end estimates come in around $250 million dollars. Governor Chris Sununu has called it a boondoggle. But a few years ago, while courting Amazon’s HQ2, Sununu said the time had come to explore rail.
DOT says it’s gotten pushback from northern regions of the state that don’t want to pay for a service that doesn’t serve them.
“The entire holdup is this is going to require a subsidy and how are we gonna pay for it,” said Dick Anognost, a developer in Manchester.
Anognost knows this argument well. A little over 10 years ago, he looked into bringing commuter rail to Manchester. His takeaway from that effort is that taxes cut two ways - taxes paid but also tax money gained.
“The impact study that’s going to be done is going to show that there’s going to be significantly more business taxes,” Anognost said. “More rooms and meals taxes. There’s going to be more real estate taxes. There’s gonna be more jobs. There’s gonna be all these other things that impact that subsidy.”
Amazon eventually settled their HQ2 in northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C. The winning bid included over half a billion in subsidies, and something on Amazon’s wish list: access to robust public transit, including commuter rail.
“My sense is that people need to get over their memories of the rail service when it deteriorated...to the point where traveling by train was not a good thing,” said history professor Stu Wallace. “They need to get over an old and deteriorating rail service and they need to look at the possibilities of modern rail. And it does succeed.”
For that to happen, Wallace says there needs to be a commitment to long-term funding.
While the Capitol Corridor development stage has passed the legislature, findings aren’t expected for up to two years. That’s when the state is eligible to apply for more federal money to start construction.
A possible and unexpected challenge, however, is that Boston Surface, the private firm angling itself to bring commuter rail to the state, just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What this means for the project is unclear, but it’s not slowing down folks like Senator Melanie Levesque from imagining a future with rail.
“I see it happening,” said Levesque. “There’s such a call for this from business, from younger people to older people, it’s really gonna revitalize our state.”