By Rick Sobey

MediaNews

NASHUA -- A mass exodus of shoppers head over the border every December, looking for that hot deal without sales tax. It puts Greater Lowell in a competitive disadvantage, some say, as businesses lose major purchases to The Granite State.

Meanwhile, for the last seven years, the Lowell Regional Transit Authority has been offering trips up to the Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, N.H. throughout the holiday season.

Because the LRTA is partly funded by the state, and these shoppers are avoiding the sales tax while not supporting Massachusetts businesses, the Pheasant Lane Mall route has some elected officials and residents scratching their heads.

"Massachusetts residents on the border probably do significant shopping in New Hampshire, but this doesn't pass the smell test because of the vehicle used to shop in New Hampshire," said state Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica. "They're going up there in a state-funded entity, and that doesn't seem right to me.

"It's not sending a good message by offering this," he added. "We're already at a disadvantage to get people to shop locally, and this just doesn't help."

The Pheasant Lane Mall route is only available on Saturdays during the holiday season, from Nov. 25 to Jan. 30. The five round-trips on Saturdays start at the Kennedy Center in Lowell, stopping at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell, Middlesex Street and Pawtucket Boulevard, Middlesex Plaza, Vinyl Square, Tyngsboro Center, TJ Maxx Plaza and the Pheasant Lane Mall.

Like Lombardo, state Rep. James Lyons said this week that the bus route should not extend that far.

"It's already tough for our small businesses to survive in this economy. Increasing the sales tax in 2009 hurt them, and this only exacerbates the situation even more," said Lyons, R-Andover. "I don't think we should be using our tax dollars to support businesses in New Hampshire, and that's exactly what we're doing here."

On the other side, LRTA Administrator Jim Scanlan said he understands these concerns, but he emphasized there are hundreds of residents without cars to get around for shopping and this service gives them a great opportunity each week.

"This route greatly benefits the residents of Greater Lowell," Scanlan said. "There are definitely a lot of great places in Greater Lowell to shop, but there's also a strong demand to shop at the Pheasant Lane Mall during the holiday season. This is really providing an option that they wouldn't have otherwise.

"It's one of those services that people are always looking forward to use," he added. "We offer the Burlington Mall route also, but it's a bit far for the residents up here in Lowell and Tyngsboro."

Last Saturday, 142 people used the Pheasant Lane Mall route, according to Scanlan.

He also stressed that the buses never leave Massachusetts, dropping off residents on the state border in Tyngsboro.

"And to those people who are talking about the LRTA being state-funded, these patrons pay sales tax during the entire course of the year," Scanlan said. "It's not like they don't pay their fair share."

Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) receive millions of dollars each year from State Contract Assistance; that's a portion of the state funding that gets distributed to RTAs from gas taxes, registry fees and sales taxes. In fiscal 2012, $59.2 million went to the RTAs from State Contract Assistance, and $2.6 million of that funding went to the LRTA.

In addition, local communities pay a yearly assessment to the LRTA. In fiscal 2012, $2.4 million in local assessments went to the LRTA. Federal assistance and fares also contribute to RTA funding.

Billerica Selectmen Chairman Dave Gagliardi, who serves on the LRTA board, said he understands the argument against the Pheasant Lane Mall route, but Gagliardi emphasized that the route was implemented because there's a demand for it.

"Ultimately, you want people to do as much shopping in your town and patronize businesses within the state, but there is a certain reality that residents will go out of state to do their shopping," Gagliardi said. "And the LRTA doesn't limit the mall service just to New Hampshire. The Burlington Mall route is also a popular option."

However, former LRTA board member Al Ramos said this route up to the Pheasant Lane Mall is "slapping residents in the face" because the LRTA is state- and locally-funded.

"Every member-town of the LRTA has loads of empty storefronts and yet the LRTA is literally busing people out of this region to go shopping," Ramos said. "The LRTA is supposed to promote the economic well-being of the area, so how can they justify bringing customers shopping in tax-free New Hampshire?"

But officials in Tyngsboro, where the Pheasant Lane Mall bus passes through, have no concerns about the holiday service. Selectman Robert Jackson said that bringing residents to New Hampshire is a great program, especially for senior citizens.

Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto added that there's potential for economic activity with the LRTA stopping in the Tyngsboro TJ Maxx Plaza.

"The region's proximity (to New Hampshire) can pose challenges for commercial entities, but we've seen the spill-over effect from the Pheasant Lane Mall with restaurants coming to town," Gilleberto said. "Public transportation is advantageous to establishments and the town, and it can help bring activity this holiday season."

Poll: What do you think about this service to the Pheasant Lane Mall?

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