Council vote on toll hike may be delayed; supporters present their case in Portsmouth
By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader
and KIMBERLEY HAAS
Union Leader Correspondent
December 04. 2017 6:03PM
(Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)
Executive Council members are considering removing a vote on proposed toll increases on New Hampshire turnpikes from the agenda for their meeting this Wednesday, postponing any decision until next month to allow for additional public input.
The move to postpone a vote this week comes in the face of growing opposition to the proposed toll increases.
"There should be hearings held by planning commissions at the county level," said Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston. "If we vote Wednesday, the hearings will be after the fact. If they go ahead and hold the vote this week, I’ve told them I will oppose it."
Prescott — one of three Executive Council members, along with Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, and Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, who favor the toll hikes — said he made it clear to fellow councilors he would like to see any vote on the proposal pushed off to January to allow for additional public input.
At a hearing on the proposed tolls in Portsmouth Monday night, Volinsky said "We know there’s strong feelings in both directions, and we want everyone to be heard." He has said the increase is long overdue.
Prescott did not attend due to a medical issue.
Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, took exception to the fact that plans for the proposed toll increase were released the day before Thanksgiving.
"I certainly don’t believe that is the way we govern in New Hampshire," Morse said.
State Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, is the chair of the transportation committee. She said the public hearing was held in a location inconvenient to many New Hampshire residents and did not allow residents enough time to organize their thoughts.
"The process, we believe, lacks transparency," Birdsell said. "There has been no outcry for an increase in tolls."
Dover Assistant City Manager Christopher Parker spoke in favor of the toll increase.
Dover has a toll plaza, and rates there would rise from 75 cents to $1 under the proposal. The Spaulding Turnpike is being widened between Dover and Newington.
"As someone who paid the tolls to get here tonight and will pay to go back home, I know time is more valuable than money," Parker said.
Robert Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association in Concord, reminded officials that 95 percent of goods in the state are transported by trucks.
"The increase on the industry I represent is a hardship," Sculley said.
He said all of the current turnpike projects are fully funded. The toll proposal can be viewed below: Proposed toll hikes
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 from the current 75 cents.
The hikes 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.
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.
(DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Toll collector Jim Preisendorfer is handed a dollar bill by a driver heading north through Hooksett on Monday.
Prescott said 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, according to the DOT.
Prescott said the feedback he has received since news of the toll hike broke has been "balanced."
"What I’ve heard is balanced, a good ‘give and take’," said Prescott. "I heard today from a woman who thinks it’s the right way to improve infrastructure. I wouldn’t bring this forward if I didn’t think it was a responsible way to proceed."
The Business and Industry Association, representing some of the state’s largest employers, along with The Granite State Taxpayers Association, the New Hampshire chapter of Americans for Prosperity and New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, have come out against the proposal.
"We understand the councilors are considering removing the toll increase vote from the agenda in an effort to allow for a more robust public comment process," said Ben Vihstadt, spokesman for Gov. Chris Sununu. "Governor Sununu would respect and support that."
The item was listed on the docket for Wednesday’s meeting when the agenda was released on Friday. The governor has said he opposes the toll increases, but respects the council’s prerogative to vote on the issue.
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