The search for a "backbone" of an alternative transportation network
Rome wasn't built in a day... and neither are infrastructure networks. Let's pick the best place to start.
The formation of an interconnected network of alternative transportation is the most effective way to protect people from the dangers on the road. By no coincidence, this is also the best way to encourage regular use.[efn_note]Rowell, John, Roger Lindgren, and Marc Schlossberg. 2019. From Knowledge to Practice: Rethinking Streets for People on Bikes. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon, Rowell Brokaw Architects, Oregon Institute of Technology.[/efn_note] After all, the elimination of obvious serious concerns results in a more comfortable experience in which people of all ages and experience levels are willing to participate. Furthermore, by making a network that actually connects places people want to go, these types of infrastructure allow for genuine alternative transportation, not just recreation.
Forming a true alternative transportation network, just like all infrastructure, requires time, advocacy, persistence, and long-term investment. The typical approach to this is to take small steps by identifying and constructing projects that might yield the greatest impact in a particular area, all the meanwhile hoping for piecemeal efforts to gradually connect and form a broader network. Cities and towns across the United States, including in the Souhegan Valley, have been taking serious steps to invest in alternative transportation infrastructure. As this trend continues and the benefits of such investment will become more and more apparent as isolated projects add up to a connected and more complete system.
While it is not possible to build a full network all at once, the best approach is to identify the most suitable place to start. Some projects, considering their location and potential to maximize usage for the most people in the most meaningful way, can offer an especially impactful opportunity as a first step.
The NH 101A corridor - an obvious starting point
New Hampshire Route 101A (NH 101A) serves as the principal east-west travel and retail corridor for the Souhegan Valley. It provides direct access for five municipalities: Milford, Amherst, Hollis, Merrimack, and Nashua and further serves as a major through-route for several other towns in the area. The highway also forms the backbone of the most prominent commercial hub across the region and serves as the sole business district for many of the municipalities along the route. 3,130 commercial and industrial businesses can be found within 1 mile of NH 101A, employing 63,400 jobs, and providing vital commercial services to a significant portion of the region. Largely due to these multiple functions, NH 101A is the highest-volume highway in the Nashua region, other than the Everett Turnpike.[efn_note]Nashua Regional Planning Commission, 2020[/efn_note]
As NH 101A serves as a major retail district in the region, employing 8,505 retail jobs, much of the regional population utilizes NH 101A to access vital services and other commercial needs.[efn_note]Nashua Regional Planning Commission, 2020[/efn_note] Several densely populated residential developments are also situated directly along NH 101A, with those residents being entirely dependent on the highway for every single trip to and from their residences. The consequence is that NH 101A traffic comprises dual, overlapping functions which results in a mixture of conflicting behaviors (higher-speed through traffic and lower-speed local traffic) and resultant congestion.
Could NH 101A offer an alternative transportation network on its own?
Despite the numerous benefits offered by a contiguous alternative transportation corridor along NH 101A, there is currently no multimodal infrastructure along the highway. Official recommendations to include multimodal facilities along the NH 101A corridor have been on record for decades[efn_note]Nashua Regional Planning Commission. 2002. “Route 101a Corridor Master Plan and Improvements Program.” Page 17. Nashua. [/efn_note], but the NH Department of Transportation (NHDOT) has no plans to incorporate such facilities at this point.
If plans were made to incorporate multimodal infrastructure alongside NH 101A today, the cost of construction and the engineering complexities of integrating these facilities into the existing roadway would be impractical as a freestanding project. The only realistic way this could be implemented would be by incorporating new designs, such as a sidepath[efn_note]A sidepath is a bidirectional shared use path located immediately adjacent and parallel to a roadway. Sidepaths can offer a high-quality experience for users of all ages and abilities as compared to on-roadway facilities in heavy traffic environments, allow for reduced roadway crossing distances, and maintain rural and small town community character.[/efn_note], during scheduled road construction. This would require obtaining NHDOT buy-in, planning the sidepath’s route, allocating funding for it, redesigning intersections and curb cuts to be “protected intersections”, and then waiting for regularly scheduled NH 101A construction projects. As a result, a single and continuous alternative transportation route along NH 101A could only be formed after many, many decades.
Another option to provide alternative transportation along the NH 101A corridor would be to form a route that would parallel the highway. This typically can be accomplished with one of two methods: forming a new corridor by piecing together land access across hundreds of privately-owned parcels, or finding and acquiring a contiguous corridor that already parallels the desired route. Finding other nearby corridors, if they exist and are amenable to such a change, offer significant benefits including the fact that the long and very complicated process of forming a single, intact route has already been completed.
The most common parallel routes that can be repurposed are often rail corridors, as their heavy use in the 1800s lead to their formation across the United States. In many ways, the golden era of rail allowed for the formation of a vast network of contiguous corridors that form a web throughout all parts of the country, whether urban or rural. Nowadays, as the role of rail has subsided, these corridors may be better utilized as alternative transportation corridors.
THE ROUTE THROUGH THE HEART OF THE SOUHEGAN VALLEY
The Hillsborough Branch Rail Line
A single, contiguous corridor in an extraordinary location
While the prominent location of NH 101A in the Souhegan Valley is unmistakable due to its role as a motor vehicle thoroughfare, paralleling the highway lies another, much less visible route offering all of the same location-based advantages, but without many of the engineering challenges. The Hillsborough Branch is a rail line that runs parallel to NH 101A along the entire highway, offering an exceptional opportunity as a potential alternative transportation corridor.
The Hillsborough Branch Rail Line
The rail line stretches 16.36 miles in a northwesterly manner, crossing six towns: Nashua, Merrimack, Hollis, Amherst, Milford, and Wilton. Starting in east Nashua at the site of the proposed passenger rail station at Crown Street, the Hillsborough branch runs through downtown Nashua and the NH 101A retail district, with direct access to Main Street, Broad Street, and hundreds of businesses. The route continues along NH 101A through small portions of Merrimack and Hollis, and through Amherst’s primary retail and industrial district.
The Hillsborough Branch has particular potential in Milford, as it effectively bisects the entire town into two halves, forming the single major corridor that spans the entire town. As a result, the majority of Milford businesses and residences live within just one mile of the rail line. Lastly, the route reaches the historic Wilton train station, providing direct access to Wilton Center.
Within just one mile of the Hillsborough Branch…[efn_note]Nashua Regional Planning Commission, 2020[/efn_note]
Nashua Transit System Annual Ridership
Miles of trails
An active, but deteriorated railroad
The Boston and Maine Corporation, a subsidiary of Pan Am Railways of North Billerica, MA is the sole owner of the Hillsborough Branch from Nashua to milepost 16.36 in Wilton. The rail line, while operational today, faces significant obstacles for a future of continued rail use along the entire route. Track conditions are very poor, resulting in a very low, federally-mandated speed limit; the prohibition of any passenger use; as well as a low weight limit. The track’s condition has led to a series of derailments over the route’s history, some of which have received attention by local media, sparked concern among residents in the area, and supposedly earning it the infamous nickname “the derailment branch”. Furthermore, freight rail, especially the type of freight found along the Hillsborough Branch have demonstrated a trend of waning service with decreasing value. This suggests that the rail line is likely struggling to offer much financial benefit to its current owner—a notion that is only reinforced by the ongoing lack of track refurbishment.
As of 2018, the Hillsborough Branch is operated by two companies: Pan Am Railways and the Milford-Bennington Railroad (MRBX). Official information about the operations of the Pan Am Railways is not publicly available. One document made available by federal filing in 2018 alleged that the company serves only one client, though this claim has not been independently verified.[efn_note]Litwiler, Thomas J. 2018. “Boston and Maine Corporation & Springfield Terminal Railway Company — Adverse Discontinuance of Operating Authority — Milford-Bennington Railroad Company, Inc.” Page 4.[/efn_note]
MRBX operates along along a 5.36-mile long segment of the Boston and Maine Corporation-owned rail line, from Wilton to milepost 11.00 in Milford, serving one shipper, Granite State Concrete Company, Inc. transporting stone and gravel approximately five miles between their quarry in Wilton and processing plant in Milford[efn_note]Surface Transportation Board 2018, 3)[/efn_note]. This dramatically reduces the number of heavy trucks that would otherwise be needed to transport the same raw materials over state and local roadways, saving those roads from accelerated damage.[efn_note]Nashua Regional Planning Commission. 2018. “Nashua Region Metropolitan Transportation Plan.” Nashua.[/efn_note] In order to pursue the expansion of an alternative transportation corridor along this segment without displacing the MRBX operation, a rail-with-trail configuration is recommended along this segment of the proposed route.[efn_note]Segment B[/efn_note]
A train on the Hillsborough Branch in Milford. Used with permission, Vincent Colombo ©2019
For sale by owner
On July 2, 2020, it was reported in the International Railway Journal that the entirety of Pan Am Railways is for sale. Reports indicated that BMO Financial Group (Bank of Montréal) is handling a transaction for Pan Am Principal Owner Tim Mellon and other investors. It is currently unclear if there are potential buyers for the company, whether its existing real estate would be purchased in whole, or otherwise split into fragments.[efn_note]Haas, Kimberley. 2020. “Pan Am Railways to be sold.” New Hampshire Union Leader, July 2. [/efn_note]
By publicly announcing their intention to sell all real estate holdings, this would likely indicate that the price to acquire the Hillsborough Branch could be a once-in-a-lifetime, cost-effective opportunity to purchase the Hillsborough Branch corridor. As recently as 2019, the State of New Hampshire purchased 9.8 miles of abandoned rail bed from Pan Am Railways for $5M using 100% federal funds, demonstrating a model for how this could be accomplished.[efn_note]Tracy, Paula. 2019. “$5M Seacoast Rail Trail land deal approved.” Seacoast Online, August 14.[/efn_note] Even in the event that a buyer shows interest in purchasing all of Pan Am Railways’ real estate, including the Hillsborough Branch, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation reserves the first right of refusal for any railway sale per RSA 228:60-b.[efn_note]New Hampshire Revised Statutes, Section 228:60-b – Purchase Price for Rail Properties[/efn_note]