N.H. House and Senate Need to Approve Study for Commuter Rail to Move Forward


Gov. Chris Sununu voiced opposition to a commuter rail in New Hampshire during his campaign. But now he’s supporting a $4 million feasibility study to look at how commuter rail could work.

NHPR’s Jessica Hunt spoke with rail expansion advocate E.J. Powers on what Sununu’s position change could mean for commuter rail in the state.

What do you make of Sununu’s new position on commuter rail?

Well, I think the Amazon proposal, it really highlights the fact that modern day businesses and their employees have a changing mindset when it comes to transportation. You know, when you look at the Amazon finalists, of the 20 finalists only three don’t currently offer rail, but two are actively exploring projects. So that sends a sign that these businesses that New Hampshire’s looking to recruit have a sort of changing mindset and want to have alternative forms of transportation into the mix.

So the main reason Sununu gave for supporting commuter rail was the possibility of new Amazon headquarters in Londonderry. Given that New Hampshire didn’t make the short list, do you suspect Sununu’s position will change again?

You know I don’t claim to speak for any politician, but what I can assume is that the governor is hearing from prospective companies and the hundreds of existing businesses that are here in New Hampshire that are facing serious workforce challenges. And I hope, I believe that maybe he has decided to strategically invest in the future of New Hampshire. So whether it’s, you know, Amazon or Apple just decided that they want to invest in a new corporate headquarters, or if it’s a company of five or 50 that’s looking to expand here in New Hampshire, New Hampshire needs to be thinking strategically in terms of how it can attract a new workforce. You know the state faces serious workforce and demographic challenges. The working age population in every county is going to be decreasing over the next 20 years. The age of folks 65 and older in every single county is going to double during that same period of time. And so this in migration that’s been seen in the 80s and 90s is just not happening again. So we need a fresh approach in terms of understanding how we’re going to fulfill the needs of the existing employers that we have here and employers of the future. And you know rail is not the silver bullet, but it certainly can be a key piece of the puzzle.

Well some of those who are opposed to the idea are saying that commuter rail would be too expensive. It would be another burden for taxpayers. And there are ongoing costs for required maintenance for railway. How do you respond to that argument?

So we’re in a very important time to understand the answers to all those questions. So the House Public Works and [Highways]* Committee has an opportunity to undertake what’s called project development phase. Now this phase will dig into all those questions, will provide a detailed analysis for engineering, for a financial plan, for environmental study, will give public policymakers all the answers they need to make an educated decision. It’s essentially a due diligence phase, and the unique thing about this phase is that it’s not going to cost New Hampshire taxpayers a dime. And it will not compel New Hampshire to spend a dime in the future. There’s $4 million in federal funding that’s sitting there, that the DOT can’t use to pave roads, can’t use to expand 93, can’t use to subsidize buses, can’t use for anything else but this particular purpose. So the state simply has to vote yes and say we want to understand whether or not rail makes sense. And this project and the project development phase that is a part of the 10 year highway plan is going to be before the House Public Works and [Highways]* Committee, and they have the opportunity to answer all those questions without costing New Hampshire taxpayers a dime.

Well, many people have been calling for something like this for a long time. What would it mean if we did move forward on commuter rail?

Well I think it would mean a lot of things. So the process for progress project development phase would take about two years to go through that. But what we’ve seen already is that there’s private interest in rail. The Boston Surface Railroad Company has expressed interest in expanding passenger rail from Lowell to Bedford, New Hampshire. So we know there’s a private appetite out there. So by moving forward with this project development phase, I view it as a public-private partnership. New Hampshire has the opportunity for zero dollars to do its part, and create the playbook and potentially hand it off to another private entity who might want to build out a rail line themselves. 

*Note: This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.  It has also been corrected.  The guest originally misstated the House committee to vote on the commuter rail study.