Commuter rail gets support at House panel’s hearing on 10-year transportation plan

CONCORD — In many past years under Republican control, the House Public Works and Highways Committee was often the place where commuter rail bills went to die.

The panel would recommend against spending money on the cause and the full House of Representatives would fall in line.

The topic seemed to get a much better reception Wednesday during a public hearing on the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

Gov. Chris Sununu’s about-face decision to support this project looked to improve the odds that it will win approval this year.

“I agree with Gov. Sununu that the time is right to take the next step to bring commuter rail in New Hampshire,” said Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, lead-off witness for the bill (HB 2018).

But a leading House Republican, Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said Sununu assured him that Republicans are free to vote against it.

“He told me that if this fails to go forward, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it,” Baldasaro said of a conversation he had with Sununu at last Saturday’s GOP state annual meeting at Bow High School.

“Now that Amazon isn’t coming here, it surely isn’t a priority for him.”

A past opponent of the project, Sununu endorsed commuter rail while trying to get Amazon to locate a second, national headquarters in New Hampshire.

Last month, Amazon announced Boston and 19 other cities outside this state were still in the running.

Sununu’s office could not be reached for comment on Baldasaro’s statement.

State Democrats took to social media to criticize Sununu including his 2016 opponent for governor, Concord Democrat Colin Van Ostern.

“Great to see bipartisan biz & community leaders banding together as @NHBiz4Rail to fight for commuter rail. Too bad our Governor greets this news by working to kill it,” Van Ostern charged in a tweet. “Count me as…not surprised.”

The two-hour hearing was dominated by speakers in support of the next phase for the so-called Capitol Corridor Project, a $4 million investment to conduct environmental and engineering designs for this rail line running from Lowell, Mass., through Nashua and on to Manchester. In fact, not a single opponent signed up to speak.

Many said bringing a rail line to New Hampshire would encourage millenials to come and live here.

“New Hampshire is rapidly graying,” said Tim Cummings, Nashua’s director of economic development.

“We need to develop initiatives that will attract younger workers to our state.”

E.J. Powers is spokesman for New Hampshire Business for Rail Expansion, a coalition of more than 50 businesses, organizations and individuals.

“A rail service is not a silver bullet, but it is one way for employers to attract new workers to the state,” Powers said.

John Madden said he moved to Hudson to retire in 2016 after a career in the transportation field, including work for the New York Department of Transportation’s rail bureau.

“This does not in any way obligate the state to move forward with construction of passenger rail service,” Madden said.

“This will provide you the facts on which you can make a decision.”

The cost of actually restoring passenger rail has been estimated at $250 million to $300 million, much of which could come from federal transportation funds.

Critics maintain, however, the state and local taxpayers would have to come up with at least $10 million a year to cover operating costs.