- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

NASHUA, N.H. (AP) - Business and planning experts say a coordinated approach to transportation that includes road and rail is needed to keep New Hampshire’s economy competitive and commuters flowing in and out of the state.

But any plan in a state where travel by car dominates over rail and other modes of transportation would have to consider commute times, population projections and, of course, funding.

The Associated Press analyzed U.S. Census data from 2013 that shows more than 204,000 people commuted to work from the Manchester-Nashua metropolitan area and the vast majority - 166,541 - were alone in a car.

Those solo drivers in the state’s only metropolitan statistical area included in the data took an average of 26.7 minutes to get to work, compared to the national average of 25.8 minutes.

And while drivers tell nightmare stories of stop-and-go or just plain stopped traffic on Interstate 93 or other southerly routes to the busy Boston markets, solo is still the fastest way to get to work.

Mass transit, at an average of 35.3 minutes, is the slowest and least used in New Hampshire, with only about 2,200 daily riders, according to the Census data. The national average commute time for mass transit users is 48.7 minutes.

Meanwhile, the census data projects a 4.6 percent growth in population in the Manchester-Nashua region by 2020, to an estimated 419,000 people, putting added strain to the overworked highway system.

Michael Skelton, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said his 900 member businesses consistently name transportation as key to economic growth and see improving the trip between Boston and southern New Hampshire as the best way to attract employers.

“We are part of the Boston economic ecosystem,” Skelton said. “Ensuring a strong, reliable and efficient connection to that area allows businesses to become more successful, to grow, to strengthen their workforce.”

A study completed by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority last year found that operating commuter rail to Nashua and Manchester would create up to 5,600 permanent jobs by 2030.

“I think that is the most tangible and specific transportation infrastructure opportunity that we can invest in that has the potential to create a very strong tie to Boston that could position us for many future opportunities,” Skelton said.

The state should also consider better coordination among the existing bus lines that operate in what Tim Roache, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, calls the transit triangle: Manchester at the peak and the seacoast and Nashua at the corners on the base.

“If you look around the country and look at the metro areas that have grown and are vibrant and have attracted workforces, they have multiple modes of transportation available to them,” he said.

Also needed are improvements to the east-west infrastructure across the bottom of the state, namely routes 101 and 101-A, including the potential for additional bridges across the Merrimack River, Roache said.

All of which will cost money that has lately been scarce.

The state Senate in May blocked an effort to put $4 million in the state’s next capital improvements budget for an engineering and environmental impact analysis of a rail corridor from Boston, Nashua and Manchester.

And New Hampshire, along with other states, has already been forced to delay routine maintenance of secondary roads and bridges as the rate of federal money flowing into the state for highway improvements has slowed over the past decade.

Skelton said states need to reconsider the traditional use of a gas tax as the main source of funding for roads and bridges, especially with the proliferation of alternative fuel cars and as vehicles get more efficient and people drive less.

“We all agree that these are priorities that we cannot do without as a society,” he said. “Certainly no one wants to see those costs go up so it impacts consumers, but we also have to pay for priorities.”

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