Councilor pushes back on rail ad campaign
CONCORD — Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, accused the state Department of Transportation of advocating for a controversial commuter rail proposal through a request for $40,000 to launch a public education campaign on the benefits of the Capital Corridor project.
The council approved the funding for the education effort in a 4-1 vote, but not after some heated debate.
“It’s silly that we’re going to tell people how wonderful the Capital Corridor is when we don’t know if it’s a good idea or not. That’s why we’re doing a study,” said Sununu in questioning DOT Commissioner Christopher Clement at the Executive Council session Wednesday. “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”
Clement said the transportation department was not trying to influence the public on the plan to extend the existing commuter rail system across the Massachusetts border into Nashua, through Manchester and on to Concord.
“With all due respect, Chris, that’s exactly what you’re doing,” Sununu replied. “You’re advocating for the benefit of the Capital Corridor project.”
The commuter rail proposal has been hotly debated for a decade. In February, the Executive Council voted to approve a $3.6 million feasibility study for restoring passenger rail service along the Merrimack River, with Sununu casting the only vote in opposition. The same study was defeated a year earlier by a Republican-dominated council.
$250-$300 million cost
The cost of actually restoring passenger rail from Nashua to Concord has been estimated at $250 million to $300 million. The study will determine the startup costs and provide estimates as to likely ridership, ongoing operating expenses and economic impacts.
“How can we be educating people on the benefits of the Capital Corridor if we haven’t even completed a study on the benefits of the Capital Corridor?” Sununu asked.
The $40,000 education campaign would be funded with $32,000 from a Federal Railroad Administration grant and $8,000 from the state capital fund on behalf of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority.
Clement said the information campaign would help gather information for the viability study, which is scheduled for completion in December 2014.
The memorandum of understanding between the DOT and the Rail Transit Authority for selection of a public relations consultant states that “the sole purpose of the selected consultant shall be to promote the mission and activities of the NHRTA and educate the public on the benefits of passenger rail, and shall not be specific to any single project or function.”
“This is an important piece of a project we have already voted for,” said Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord.
Sununu said claims that the PR campaign would be objective are contradicted in the written explanation of the project submitted to the council, which stated:
“The DOT and NHRTA have agreed to partner in the selection of a consultant for the sole purpose of public outreach and public relations to increase the public awareness of the mission of the NHRTA ... and to educate the public on the benefits of rail as part of a comprehensive multi-modal transportation system, both statewide and specifically within the N.H. Capital Corridor.”
In other votes, the council confirmed the nomination of John T. Beardmore of Hopkinton as the new commissioner of the Department of Revenue; and Peter C. Hastings of Derry as the new commissioner of the Department of Information Technology.
Roger A. Sevigny was confirmed to another term as commissioner of the Department of Insurance.
The council accepted the nomination of attorney James W. Craig of Manchester, Minority House Leader from 2004-2006, as commissioner of the Department of Labor.