NH Senate president: Eliminate Merrimack toll booths
CONCORD - Senate President Peter Bradgon wants to eliminate the ramp toll booths at all three F.E. Everett Turnpike exits in Merrimack, telling fellow lawmakers Tuesday the tolls have served their purpose and place an unfair burden on the town's commuters.
Bragdon is a five-term Milford Republican who now represents Merrimack for the first time as a result of last year's redistricting.
In testimony before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he acknowledged the move would cost the state $650,000 to $2.5 million. But he said it would be subtracted from a turnpike system revenue stream totaling $70 million and could be easily absorbed.
Bragdon pointed out that in 2010, the turnpike system was financially healthy enough to be able to transfer $120 million to the state Highway Fund to help balance the state budget.
Bragdon is sponsoring Senate Bill 3 along with co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. There are five House co-sponsors.
Bragdon said the current system is "unfair to the town and the people of Merrimack."
The tolls were built in 1989 to pay for about $50 million in road improvements to facilitate more industry in Merrimack.
Since that time, Bragdon said, there have been road improvements in other communities and no new tolls have been added to pay for them. He cited the Manchester Airport Access Road and the Granite Street Exit in Manchester and improvements in Concord.
Raise tolls elsewhere?
The state Department of Transportation opposed the proposal.
Commissioner Christopher Clement, in a letter to the committee, wrote that the department must do more bonding in the future for several turnpike projects and "the erosion of revenue" by eliminating the tolls could hurt the agency's credit rating and make borrowing more expensive.
Clement said $49 million in bonding used to build the three Merrimack exchanges 24 years ago are still outstanding and will not be paid off until 2020 and 2024.
He suggested that if one or more of the Merrimack tolls are eliminated, the state should consider increasing tolls elsewhere to make up for the loss of revenue.
"It would be, in the department's opinion, short-sighted to remove the Merrimack tolls without enhancing revenue to offset the loss," Clement wrote.
But Bragdon said Merrimack drivers are forced to pay tolls to go just a few miles, while drivers in other communities can drive substantial distances for free.
He pointed out that drivers in the Nashua-Hudson area can drive nine miles to the Massachusetts border with no tolls, while drivers in Manchester and surrounding towns have free access to four entrances and exits.
Bragdon said, "A state agency with $120 million in excess cash sitting around that can be used to bail out other state agencies is collecting more than it needs and will certainly not miss $650,000 or even $2.5 million.
"Regardless of the cost, this is the right thing to do," Bragdon said.