Van Ostern and Sununu clash over rail costs at final gubernatorial debate

  • THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER Republican Chris Sununu, right, answers a question as Democrat Colin Van Ostern listens during the Granite State Debates gubernatorial debates held at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown on Tuesday. Thomas Roy

  • 11/01/2016 THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER Democrat Colin Van Ostern, left listens as Republican Chris Sununu, answers a question during the Granite State Debates gubernatorial debates held at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown on Tuesday. Thomas Roy

Monitor staff
Published: 11/2/2016 1:12:52 AM

Commuter rail remained one of the most contentious issues during Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate, as Republican Chris Sununu accused Democratic opponent Colin Van Ostern of “pandering to train fanatics.”

Various numbers were thrown around for the project’s price tag at the WMUR debate – the final one before next week’s election.

While Van Ostern has consistently said a commuter rail project would cost the state between $3 million and $4 million per year, WMUR reporter and panelist Adam Sexton challenged that number, saying the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority estimated the actual project cost closer to $10 million to $12 million.

Van Ostern disagreed, saying that number doesn’t take into account revenue drivers like ticket sales and the cost of parking at train stations.

“I think investments that help bring 5,600 new jobs to the area are critical,” Van Ostern said. “We need to make investments in our economy moving forward.”

As he has throughout the entire campaign, Sununu sounded incredulous at the thought of the 33-mile extension to the commuter rail line, saying the “boondoggle” project would cost closer to $350 million in total.

“The idea that it’s going to bring all these jobs is an absolute myth,” Sununu said, adding he would rather focus on the state’s existing infrastructure needs, like roads and bridges.

While the candidates disagree on many issues including rail, the Northern Pass project and making Medicaid expansion permanent, their views aligned on other topics.

Sununu and Van Ostern agreed on the need for full-day kindergarten and school building aid, as well as providing more funding to drug treatment and prevention.

The two also agree on their opposition to any broad-based sales or income taxes; Sununu said he would grow state revenue by cutting business taxes to incentivize more businesses to come to the state, while Van Ostern talked about implementing statewide full-day kindergarten to attract more young families to New Hampshire.

Besides a 10-cent increase in the state’s cigarette tax, Van Ostern said he does not plan to raise any of the other state taxes or fees if elected.

However, the two executive councilors squabbled as much over each other’s voting records and backgrounds as the issues at Tuesday night’s debate.

Sununu took shots at Van Ostern’s many years running New Hampshire campaigns as a political operative before he joined the private sector.

Van Ostern rarely talks about his work on campaigns, preferring to emphasize his business experience, something Sununu seized on.

“What Colin never wants to talk about is the first 10 years of his 15-year career as a paid political operative,” Sununu said. “A paid political operative is no background for someone trying to manage budgets and control costs.”

Van Ostern fired back at Sununu’s own business record as the CEO of the Waterville Valley Resort.

While Sununu has often bragged about expanding the business creating jobs, an NHPR report earlier this year found the number of jobs at the ski resort decreased by 63 in the five years since Sununu took over.

“When his family bought a ski mountain for him to manage, we’ve seen that he hasn’t been able to keep an eye on the bottom line, or look out for people,” Van Ostern said. “He cut jobs, they’ve lost half their skiers since he took over, they’ve fallen completely off the rankings.”

When it came time to talk about their records on the Executive Council, both candidates faced questions about donations that employees of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Eversource Energy have made to their respective campaigns.

Sununu has accepted more than $18,000 from employees of Eversource, which his opponents have tied to his support of the Northern Pass project.

The Republican insisted he has supported Northern Pass all along, and has not changed his views on the project due to financial contributions. He said he is more motivated by wanting to lower the high electrical rates he pays as a small business owner.

“There’s no active contract of Northern Pass sitting before the Executive Council,” Sununu said. “There’s no active projects here that we’re moving forward on. I’m a supporter of Northern Pass because I know it’s going to drop rates.”

Van Ostern, meanwhile, has come under fire for taking about $38,000 in campaign contributions from employees of Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center while he was considering a state contract to run New Hampshire Hospital in Concord.

The Democrat didn’t directly answer a question from WMUR moderator Josh McElveen about how he would assure voters the contributions had no influence on his vote.

“I think voters should judge us based on the votes that we make and the positions that we take, and who we stand up for. I’m always going to stand up for the people of New Hampshire,” Van Ostern said, before veering back to the issue of energy and electricity rates.

That response prompted an outcry from Sununu.

“I answered the question head on,” Sununu said. “I’ll be transparent, I’ll give you a straight story every single time. Colin will shuck and jive and dodge the question any way he can.”

Van Ostern clarified that he has continued to support the contract because of the state’s mental health crisis, saying Dartmouth-Hitchcock taking over New Hampshire Hospital has opened up more beds and resources to mentally ill patients.

“I don’t think having an election a week away should change your position on it,” Van Ostern said.

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