Toll boost a tax hike? Vote nears
By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau
December 02. 2017 10:01PM
(Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)
The Bedford toll plaza on the F.E. Everett Turnpike on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017.
- Calling it a tax hike, state Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, added his voice this weekend to growing opposition to proposed toll increases on New Hampshire turnpikes. But the issue is headed for an Executive Council vote on Wednesday, following a public hearing set for Portsmouth on Monday night.
Gov. Chris Sununu ended any speculation that he might "pocket veto" the proposal by not placing it on the Executive Council agenda for Wednesday. The item was listed on the agenda as released on Friday. The governor has said he opposes the toll increases, but respects the council's prerogative to vote on the issue. Left unanswered is whether he might then negate an approval vote, a power rarely used.
Also on Friday, the Business and Industry Association, representing some of the state's largest employers, added its concern, saying it has written to each of the five councilors, asking them to postpone the vote to allow more time for study and public input. While Councilors David Wheeler and Joe Kenney oppose the hikes, Councilors Russell Prescott, Chris Pappas and Andru Volinsky favor them.
The Granite State Taxpayers Association also came out against the plan, joining the New Hampshire chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the trade association representing trucking companies, N.H. Motor Transport.
If implemented, the toll changes would be the first in a decade and would accelerate the timetable for completing existing projects in the state's 10-year highway plan, while adding some new ones.
Rates would increase to $1.50 from $1 at the mainline tolls at Hooksett and Bedford. The Hampton toll would go to $2.50, and the toll plazas on the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover and Rochester would go up to $1 apiece from the current 75 cents.
All this would raise $36 million more a year and would pay for $750 million in upgrades over the next decade as long as the state issued a new, $50 million bond in 2022, according to the proposal created by the Department of Transportation.
Discounts are proposed for commuters who travel through multiple plazas and pay relatively high monthly tolls. With discounts accounted for, the DOT estimates the increases would raise annual toll revenue by 27 percent.Series of hearings
Prescott said the proposal emerged from a series of hearings held by councilors throughout the state in the fall on updates to the state's 10-year highway plan.
The input at those hearings, attended mostly by municipal officials and regional planners, suggested that some projects on the plan should be completed sooner, while some new ones should be added.
Prescott asked the Department of Transportation to develop a plan in response to the input at the hearings, which led to the proposal now under consideration.
"This is not something I just sprung on everyone," said Prescott. "This is based on the needs and potential bang for the buck, and the fact that we get 55 percent of the money from out-of-state drivers. This is a prudent and responsible way to proceed."
Prescott will chair the 6 p.m. Monday meeting in the Portsmouth Public Library and make opening remarks, as will DOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan. Public comment will follow a presentation by NHDOT Deputy Commissioner Chris Waszczuk on the plan's details.
"Our purpose in asking them to postpone any vote is that we just recently heard about this proposal, and know absolutely nothing about it," said David Juvet, senior vice president of public policy for the BIA.
"This proposal came up very quickly and we do not believe the public or advocacy organizations have been given appropriate time to digest impacts of toll increases."
Morse said he opposes the plan and that the Executive Council should hold off on approving any changes in tolls until the Legislature has had a chance to debate the plan's objectives.
"I firmly believe the council is the body that has the right to raise tolls," he said. "It's in the law and I don't intend to change that. What hasn't been debated are the (highway) priorities of the House and Senate."Troubled by timing
Ray Chadwick, chairman of Granite State Taxpayers, said his group is concerned about the timing and the cost of the proposal.
"The question is, do we really need this right now, and even assuming we do, why should we be in the position where we have to watch this come from inception to vote in a span of 14 days?" he asked. "If there is a need to put more money into the Turnpike Trust Fund, make that case and let it be mulled over by the public and various advocacy organizations like ours."
Among other things, the proposal would speed up by several years construction and completion of Interstate 93 widening from I-89 to I-393; Exit 6 and Exit 7 improvements in Manchester and the Everett Turnpike widening in Nashua and Manchester.
The turnpike system would be extended in Concord from Exit 14 to the I-93 bridges over the Merrimack River, freeing more $200 million in future federal funds to be used elsewhere in New Hampshire for transportation projects, according to the DOT.firstname.lastname@example.org