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Sununu does about-face on rail to try and lure Amazon

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 30. 2017 10:03AM

The fact New Hampshire would try and become the site of Amazon’s new headquarters is no surprise.

What was unexpected was that Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposal for the Woodmont Commons development site in Londonderry would include the full-throated support for using a new commuter rail line to bring workers to that property.

“There are a variety of mass transit options for Woodmont Commons. The state has a plan for a rail that connects to the Boston transit lines at the Massachusetts state line in Nashua and will run north to Manchester,” the proposal states.

“The New Hampshire Department of Transportation commissioned a detailed study in 2014. If Amazon landed in New Hampshire, the state could aggressively accelerate the timeframe in activating passenger rail on this established line.”

Sununu, a first-term Republican, has been a longstanding opponent of the rail project both as governor and prior to that during three terms on the state Executive Council.

“When we have real infrastructure priorities and needs that can help the 700,000 people a day that drive on (the) roads, why should we be spending $300 million for a train so maybe we can send a couple thousand people a day to work in Boston? That makes no sense,” Sununu said while campaigning for the governor’s office last October.

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

Apparently the lure of getting 50,000, high-paying jobs and one of the most successful, U.S.-based companies to come to New Hampshire is enough for Sununu to take a different view.

“In terms of the rail, absolutely that’s on the table. Rail has been studied, rail has been proposed, and if Amazon wants to come and we can accelerate those plans then that’s absolutely on the table,” Sununu told reporters recently when asked about the obvious contradiction.

The Amazon New Hampshire plan also places stress on one project Sununu has consistently supported, the existing commuter bus line that runs from New Hampshire to Boston every day.

“Currently, New Hampshire maintains one of the most successful bus lines in the Greater Boston Region—transporting hundreds of thousands of passengers between Manchester and Boston every year,” the proposal states.

“Commitments to expand bus service from Manchester, Nashua, and Boston will allow direct access to the Amazon site.”

Even Sununu’s support would not guarantee that expanding commuter rail would get through the 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.

Most recently, the State Senate voted, 12-11, to kill a bill in 2016 to spend $4 million for the final engineering work for the Capitol Corridor project that would link Concord, Manchester and Nashua stations with trains running to Boston.

The GOP-led House of Representatives has been even less supportive.

Sununu’s Democratic opponent, former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, made the rail project a major theme of his campaign and he criticized Sununu’s about-face.

“Is this N.H. policy now?” Van Ostern tweeted recently. “Promising N.H. builds commuter rail if Amazon comes, but otherwise not, insults 1000’s of current N.H biz’s.”

Former Manchester Alderman Garth Corriveau, a Democrat, agreed.

“New Hampshire shouldn’t need an Amazon Prime membership to get commuter rail,” Corriveau said. “We deserve economic development and a better quality of life.”

Robert Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, has been a longstanding opponent of the project and especially past attempts to use motor vehicle fee or gasoline tax revenue to support it.

Sculley maintains any such diversion would violate Article 6-A of the New Hampshire Constitution.

Given the gravity of the Amazon project, Sculley said he understands why Sununu would be open to rail, but he pointed out the project still faces obstacles.

“I think there is a threshold question here about whether this is going to make any sense or whether it is going to be cost prohibitive for prospective employees to spend that kind of money to get to Londonderry,” Sculley said.

“We aren’t against rail per se. We just haven’t yet seen a comprehensive way to pay for it or an indication from the business community and its work force that they are going to embrace this by bringing more jobs here and making it more financially feasible. “If it proves to be successful, so be it.”

Sculley points to the most recent analysis from the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority that concluded the project would require $300 million in capital investment to start and every year about $19 million in annual revenue.

Even the study from supporters concludes that money raised by railroad fares would only cover about half of that need, leaving state taxpayers to pay about $10 million a year, Sculley said.

“The devil is always in the details,” Sculley added.

“I think there is an awful lot of unknown about this.”

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