Sununu now backs $4m commuter rail study

Chris Sununu is shown attending the annual picnic of the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers held at the American Legion Hentry J. Sweeney Post in Manchester in July 2016. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader File)

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu, a longtime opponent of extending commuter rail from Massachusetts into New Hampshire, is now saying he thinks the idea is worth spending $4 million to study.

The House Speaker, however, says that’s not likely to sway a majority of state representatives who would ultimately have to approve accepting the federal grant.

The governor first indicated his position on commuter rail was softening when he announced New Hampshire’s plan to vie for Amazon’s new headquarters in October.

The state’s proposal for the Woodmont Commons development site in Londonderry would include using a new commuter rail line to bring workers to that property.

Support for extension of commuter rail to strengthen the state’s Amazon application has morphed into qualified support for further study of the Concord Corridor, and extension of commuter rail from Nashua, through Manchester, to the capital city, with a federal transportation grant.

Sununu addressed the Rivier University President’s Circle Leadership Forum on Wednesday morning in Nashua, and took advantage of the opportunity to suggest that the time was right to further study rail connections.

The announcement coincided with the release of Sununu’s recommended 10-year transportation plan to the state legislature.

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess has been an aggressive advocate for commuter rail. The city last year entered into a public-private partnership with a railroad company out of Rhode Island for a train from Worcester, Mass., with stops in Lowell, Nashua and Bedford.

The governor said he changed his mind while developing the Amazon application, and as prospects for private-public partnerships emerged.

“I continue to have genuine concerns regarding the long-term, financial viability of such an expansive project,” he said. 

“However, the recent process of drafting New Hampshire’s groundbreaking Amazon proposal has demonstrated the need to study the potential options. 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.”

Described as boondoggle

While running for governor, Sununu called the rail project a boondoggle that made no sense. He was the lone Executive Council to vote against the $4 million commuter rail study in 2013. 

Democrats pounced on the reversal. “While Sununu ignored years of calls from small businesses asking for rail, the governor picked up on the first ring for a big corporation,” said N.H. Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley. 

Sununu’s support would not guarantee that expanding commuter rail would get through a Republican-led Legislature that has rejected the project. Time and again, lawmakers have turned it down even when strong rail supporters like Democrats Maggie Hassan and John Lynch were in the corner office.

House Speaker Gene Chandler said that is not likely to change.

“The governor and I agree on most things, but on this one we do disagree,” he said. “Everyone says it’s federal money, but it’s still money, and I don’t think the study will lead to anything we can accomplish in the state of New Hampshire.”

The House Public Works and Highways Committee is likely to strip the study out of the 10-year plan before it even gets to the House floor, according to Chandler.

“I would be surprised if it got support there,” he said, citing an estimated annual subsidy cost for commuter rail of $12 million to $14 million a year if the project was completed.