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February 16. 2013 11:48PM

'Worn out' Merrimack council eyes next round in tollbooths bout

MERRIMACK - With another proposal to eliminate the tollbooths in Merrimack making its way through Concord, local officials are not highly optimistic it will be successful, but say they are willing to compromise.

"We have been doing this for 10 or 12 years," said Thomas Mahon, town council chairman, describing the unsuccessful efforts to remove the tolls as insanity. "We are sort of worn out."

Senate President Peter Bragdon is proposing Senate Bill 3, which would eliminate the ramp tollbooths at all three F.E. Everett Turnpike exits in Merrimack. His bill is being co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Mahon claims there has been so much meddling with a very constrained turnpike system, that there are nearly no options to make improvements. He is asking Bragdon to take a practical business approach when handling his request, making sure the financial issues are clear before presenting the bill on the Senate floor.

Bragdon said his proposal could reduce revenue by $650,000 to $2.5 million if the three tollbooths are eliminated, but stressed the loss could be absorbed by the total $70 million in revenue from the turnpike system.

"It is very difficult to get some financial figures," Bragdon told the town council on Thursday.

Councilor Nancy Harrington told Bragdon that city officials want all three tollbooths gone; however, she said the reality is that state officials will not want to give up Exit 10 because of the major revenue from Merrimack Premium Outlets, BAE Systems and Fidelity Investments.

"I am a realist," she said, adding the majority of the town would benefit if just Exits 11 and 12 were eliminated and Exit 10 had to remain.

Councilor Tom Koenig echoed the comments made from his fellow board members, contending it is unfair for Merrimack residents to have to pay all of the tolls when Manchester and Nashua are without tollbooths.

But he agrees with Harrington, saying that if all three of them cannot be removed, at least one or two of the tolls being eliminated would be beneficial. However, Koenig maintained that some motorists would then avoid certain exits that have tolls and instead use an exit that does not, which could cause extra traffic on town roads.

"We have been paying for 30 years," said Councilor Dan Dwyer. "They should be on our side. They should be listening to common sense, but they are not."

Typically in politics, Dwyer said, if you go for everything, you will likely end up with nothing. Still, he said, anything - even the removal of one tollbooth - would be a victory for Merrimack.

"We would have a weekend festival," he said, promising that the town would pick up the tab to physically remove a tollbooth. "Don't worry about the cost of removal. We will take care of it."

Another councilor, Jackie Flood, had a different approach. She described Exit 10 as a "cash cow," saying it would worry her if the exit was removed and it then caused a significant financial burden on the turnpike system.

Instead, she said, the better option would be to switch to a gasoline tax, where half a penny could go a long way toward eliminating the tolls, which she argued is an inefficient way to collect revenue. The gas tax, however, would be globally fair, Flood said.

"Something needs to be done," Bragdon told the council, adding the ball needs to start rolling now in the Senate. He admits that the proposal to remove the three tollbooths would result in a financial hit, but it is a loss the turnpike system can handle, said Bragdon.

According to Bragdon, proposed Senate Bill 3 will receive resistance if it reaches the House of Representatives, but he believes there may be an opportunity for some "horse trading," with negotiations possible.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday.

khoughton@newstote.com

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