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Sununu supports N.H. commuter rail study he once panned



For the Monitor
Thursday, January 18, 2018

Gov. Chris Sununu called commuter rail a “boondoggle” as he campaigned for the corner office in the State House in 2016.

But Wednesday, in Nashua – a city that has longed for passenger rail to the Boston area – Sununu changed course and supported spending $4 million on a study on the feasibility of more robust rail service in New Hampshire.

The governor’s change in tune on commuter rail appears to come from his push to try to bring Amazon’s new headquarters to the Granite State.

“I continue to have genuine concerns regarding the long-term, financial viability of such an expansive project. However, the recent process of drafting New Hampshire’s groundbreaking Amazon proposal has demonstrated the need to study the potential options,” Sununu said in a statement.

“After consulting with business leaders from across New Hampshire, it is clear that the public-private partnership aspect has evolved. In order to fully assess the costs associated with the rail project, a study at this time is appropriate,” said Sununu, who had opposed such a study while serving on the Executive Council.

States and municipalities across the country and Canada offered proposals to Amazon in hopes of landing the internet giant’s new headquarters, dubbed Amazon HQ2. The Monitor was first to report on Sununu’s personal involvement with the pitch, with he unveiled in October.

The governor pitched the 600-acre Woodmont Commons development in Londonderry to Amazon. The site is right off Interstate 93 and close to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. In making the pitch, Sununu offered the possibility of a commuter rail system to bring workers to the proposed headquarters.

Sununu made clear his change in position Wednesday morning while speaking at an event at Rivier University in Nashua.

“A lot of these things are just about the timing of it – it’s about making sure the pieces are in play and we are not just driving something. And that was one of my hesitations years ago – I thought we were just getting a little too ahead of ourselves,” Sununu said, according to a transcript from New Hampshire Public Radio. “I think the time is right and I’m hopeful we can get it through the Legislature.”

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sununu’s Democratic predecessor as governor, supported a proposed commuter rail line from Boston to Nashua and on to Manchester.

In the 2016 campaign to succeed her, candidate Sununu slammed commuter rail. He described it as a “boondoggle” in an interview with the Monitor’s editorial board.

“Putting all your young workforce hopes into a boondoggle train project that frankly has no chance of going anywhere, it’s bad leadership,” he said at the time.

The issue was front and center in the rough-and-tumble GOP gubernatorial primary, where Sununu criticized then-Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas for “flip-flopping” on the issue.

Sununu and Democratic nominee Colin Van Ostern, who was a strong proponent of commuter rail, battled over the issue during the general election campaign. Van Ostern highlighted an independent 2014 Capitol Corridor study, which concluded that commuter rail would help New Hampshire businesses create more than 5,600 new jobs.

Sununu slammed commuter rail at their first head-to-head debate.

“To think that kids in Cambridge are going to get on a train and travel an hour north to Manchester every day instead of just going to work in Boston is completely unrealistic,” Sununu said. “I won’t put New Hampshire’s financial future at risk.”

Van Ostern stood by his support for rail Wednesday.

“Never underestimate the power of a good idea to eventually overcome even the most outspoken political opposition,” Van Ostern told the Monitor.

The $4 million price on the commuter rail study would be paid with federal money. The request for the study was included in an update to the state’s 10-year transportation plan, which Sununu sent to the Legislature this week.

The governor received the update from the five-member Executive Council. Three of the members – Democratic Councilors Chris Pappas and Andru Volinsky and Republican Russell Prescott – pushed for the commuter rail study.

“This provision adopts the findings of three Executive Councilors and will well serve the economic and environmental interests of the Granite State,” Volinsky said in a statement to the Monitor.

The 10-year transportation plan, including the provision to accept federal money to pay for the commuter rail study, now needs to be approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature. And some opposition is expected from conservatives.

Greg Moore, the New Hampshire state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that pushes for lower taxes and less government regulation, said AFP remains opposed to a commuter rail “boondoggle.”

“Commuter rail continues to be a bad investment for the taxpayers of New Hampshire,” Moore told the Monitor. “Not only is there a huge initial outlay as far as taxpayer dollars to pay for this boondoggle, but there’s an ongoing cost as far as subsidies that would be required in order to maintain such a railway.”