Four towns on board for partnership with Woonsocket train investor

Four towns on board for partnership with Woonsocket train investor

WOONSOCKET – Officials from four towns in three states agreed this week to pursue a partnership with a Woonsocket-based investor for creation of a regional train service, a collaboration they say could bring in millions of dollars in grant money for infrastructure improvements, along with access to millions more in federal loans.

Vincent Bono said that in addition to the planned runs to Worcester, Mass., and Providence, his commuter trains are set to connect Woonsocket to points farther north and into New Hampshire within the next five years.

His business, Boston Surface Railroad Company, is creating a public/private partnership with the communities of Nashua, N.H., as well as Lowell and Worcester, Mass., and, of course, Woonsocket. Leaders from the communities have agreed to pursue the deal, and if it is approved by the municipalities’ other governing boards, it will bring in some $10 million in transportation grant money annually to be split between the partners, with BSRC getting 90 percent.

In Woonsocket, Bono says the grants will amount to some $250,000 annually once the train is up and running from One Depot Square.

The money would come through Urbanized Area Formula Funding, a program operated by the Federal Transit Administration aiming to provide operating assistance in urban areas and for transportation-related planning. The money would be a piece of the $4 billion in 5307 grant money the FTA gives out nationwide, the bulk of which in this region, according to Bono, currently goes to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Funding, he said, is guaranteed for the first five years following the first year of operations.

“The four partner cities and host railroads will benefit with money for improvements to stations and the surrounding infrastructure,” Bono said. “It would be a real win for the municipalities involved.”

The agreement would also make BSRC eligible for federal loans through the Railroad Reinvestment and Improvement Fund. The investor said he plans to apply for the loans to obtain millions more in funding.

The entire project, Bono estimated, amounts to a $200 million transportation investment.

A Boston native, Bono has made considerable progress in his dream of establishing commuter rail service through Woonsocket since he first announced the plan in 2015. His railway company is headquartered in the city’s historic former train station at One Depot Square, a station that currently only comes to life around the holidays, when guests take rides to the “North Pole” on the commercial train ride The Polar Express.

Bono signed a five-year lease on the building with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation in 2015, and has been working out agreements to use the tracks with Genesee & Wyoming, the company that purchased the lines from Providence & Worcester Railroad Co. last year.

Following Monday’s agreement, he’ll also need to negotiate with Pan Am Systems, the company that owns tracks traveling into New Hampshire.

He’s also brought aboard a team of railway experts that includes Wayne Denham, BSRC’s chief mechanical officer, who served for more than a decade as an accident reconstructionist for ARCCA Incorporated. Former RIDOT deputy director Peter Garino is working as a consultant on the project and a meeting this week to discuss the memorandum of understanding also included Grow Smart Rhode Island Deputy Director John Flaherty.

According to the memorandum, each city to sign onto the partnership will promote BSRC’s plan to state and federal officials, and will help to identify additional funding opportunities. The cities will be given stock in company and will appoint a member to the company’s financial oversight committee.

And at least according to Bono, there’s no downside to membership. The communities, he says, take on zero liability.

Asked what would happen if a community chooses not to pursue the agreement, he answered, “We move on to a different municipality.”

A new map of BSRC’s service plan shows seven stops with Providence as a southernmost point. The Woonsocket train would still run to Worcester as planned, and would continue on with stops in Ayer and Lowell in Massachusetts, and Nashua and Bedford in New Hampshire.

On the backburner, but still viable according to Bono, is service to Woburn and Boston, along MBTA lines.

Communities that are part of the agreement will be eligible for 10 percent of the rail mileage in their zone.

“We picked them based on the population, geography and where we needed oversight the most,” he said of the cities, noting that they also expect to have the most riders, and the most to gain from interconnection.

To obtain the funding, Bono needs a governmental partner according to FTA rules and he said he said he expects the municipalities to be a better fit for BSRC than alternatives like a state agency.

“Their goals are aligned with mine when it comes to infrastructure and my stations,” he said. “I want to see (the money) spent where my riders are. I make money when more people get on my trains. It’s free money but we want to direct it.”