Why is Diane Sheehan running for Executive Council?
It’s a rail thing, something you might not understand fully unless you’ve been following along with current Executive Councilor Deb Pignatelli, a strong proponent for bringing commuter rail to Nashua and beyond.
Sheehan will throw her hat into the ring officially when the candidate filing period opens June 4.
Pignatelli recently announced she would not seek reelection for Executive Council, citing some minor health issues.
Sheehan, who currently serves as an Alderman At Large for Nashua, says she is ready to represent District 5.
“I was very surprised with Deb’s announcement not to run, and was approached by people who were concerned with what would happen when the rail study is completed in the fall. In the interest of what happened the last time we had someone who was unresponsive in that seat, I feel it’s important that we have someone who understands the economic opportunity rail presents and is ready to act on it, should that be what the study supports,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan was referring to former Executive Councilor David Wheeler, who lost his seat to Pignatelli in 2012. Months before the election that year Wheeler faced down some pro-rail constituents during a public meeting in Nashua, where support for a commuter line is strong.
Wheeler, a Republican from Milford, said over the weekend he has every intention of running again to regain his Executive Council seat, a decision he came to long before Pignatelli announced she would not seek reelection.
He also hasn’t changed his mind about the impracticality of bringing commuter rail to Nashua.
“It’s not that rail isn’t a good idea; the question is how do we pay for a project that will cost half a billion dollars, with interest?” said Wheeler.
“And then it’s going to have to be subsidized by New Hampshire taxpayers at about $10 million a year. Meanwhile, Nashua has the honor of having one of the only public transportation systems operating in the black, the Boston Express. If you pull people off the bus and put them on a train, not only will the bus be in the red, but the train will, too. It’s something we need to give careful consideration to,” Wheeler said.
Sheehan, who recently switched her party affiliation from undeclared to Democrat for this election, said she is primarily running to make sure voters have an alternative to Wheeler. She says winning the Executive Council seat would not limit her ability to serve Nashua in her role as alderman.
“I’m confident that a lot of what I’m doing on the Board of Aldermen, including work with the Nashua Regional Planning Commission, will result in some good sharing of information. Rail is a key issue for people living in Nashua. I don’t want to see it stall out again,” Sheehan said.
Wheeler said he is interested to learn the results of the rail study, but will find it difficult to get past the lack of dedicated funding to move the idea forward, should the study support that.
And besides that, he’d be surprised if the study supports bringing rail into Nashua.
“Highways are paid for by dedicated funds – the gas tax and vehicle registrations. The train has no dedicated source, other than the fare, which is predicted to be nowhere near enough. Maybe, if we see what the numbers look like to bring a train to the Pheasant Lane Mall area first, but I doubt if the train study is going to come back with any answers on how we afford to extend rail to Concord or even Manchester,” Wheeler said. “This is the fourth study, and all the answers are coming back the same.”
Sheehan says Wheeler’s resistance to the study, despite support from many constituents in Nashua – including Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, Chamber of Commerce President Christopher Williams and several sitting aldermen – simply underscores how out of touch he is with those he was elected to serve.
“[Wheeler] delayed rail for two years, and many were happy about that. But many, many, many more were not. He wasn’t even delaying rail, he was delaying having good information with which to make a good decision about rail,” Sheehan said.
Wheeler stands by his position.
“I’m in favor of baby steps. I just can’t see the whole run to Concord, which most people who are advocating this want the whole ball of wax. I just can’t see how New Hampshire an afford half a billion dollars for this. I’m sure [Sheehan] is pretty good at spending money we don’t have.”
The field for Pignatelli’s seat is getting crowded, as Republicans Steve Stepanek, of Amherst and Steve Hattmer of Hollis have both announced their intentions to run, as well as Democrat Jennifer Daler of Temple.