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December 03. 2013 10:48PM

DOT chief details highway funding worries; Senate president opposes gas tax hike

CONCORD — Facing a yearly $20 million deficit in the state highway fund, Department of Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement told a House panel Tuesday the DOT faces 700 layoffs in fiscal year 2016.

He said without additional revenue, 20 of the 89 highway sheds will close, along with one of the six district offices in the state.

The state's highway fund receives about $120 million a year from the gas tax and about $105 million to $110 million from vehicle registrations.

A proposal to increase the gas tax by 12 cents over three years passed the House last session, but was killed in the Senate.

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said Tuesday night the DOT cannot keep asking for more money.

"We're going to have to look at reducing spending ... rather than increase taxes or tolls," Morse said. "We produce the budget and (Clement) needs to live within his means."

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, Senate Transportation Committee chairman, will be introduced in the 2014 session to raise the gas tax 4.5 cents, which would raise $32 million a year for highways.

Morse said he would not support Rausch's bill.

"I continue to oppose a gas tax increase," he said. "It hurts the people who can least afford it."

Clement told the House Public Works and Highways Committee in fiscal year 2016, the state's 13 bridge maintenance crews, which repair the majority of the state's red-listed bridges, would have to be reduced to seven.

The current winter maintenance policy of having the roads "black and wet in two-and-a-half hours" won't hold, he said, noting it will take longer.

Patrick McKenna, the department's Director of Finance, said the 300-member engineering staff, which designs and inspects federal projects, will be cut in half.

"We may come up with the $250 million to finish the (Interstate 93 expansion project between Salem and Manchester), but not have the engineers to do it," said Patrick McKenna, the department's Director of Finance.

DOT officials said the problems stem from the loss of one-time money, leaving the department with a projected deficit of $48 million for the 2016 fiscal year, and $105 million deficit for 2017.

Over the past few years, the state's highway fund has been boosted from the "sale" of the I-95 high level bridge between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine to the Turnpike system, which has about $30 million a year.

The state also bonded operating expenses for the department, but that avenue is maxed out, according to Clement.

He said ideally the state should be paving 500 miles of roads a year so that all the state's roads will be repaved every 10 years, but instead about 300 miles of roads are repaved a year, making it a 15-year cycle.

Although about 10 to 15 red-listed bridges are repaired and moved off the list every year, more bridges than that are added each year, he said.

"We've been doing less with less," Clement said.

Although he assumes the federal highway department will provide the $150 million a year it currently provides, Clement said, that is uncertain. In the past, the authorization would be for multiple years so the state could depend on the money, but now the federal budget is funded on continuing resolutions on a year-to-year basis.

Clement told the committee the state's turnpike fund paid for by tolls is in better shape due to two toll increases in the last six years, but the I-93 expansion from Salem to Manchester will come to a halt in October 2016, unless $250 million is found to complete the project from exit three to Manchester.

The last construction contract paid through authorized funding will be before the Executive Council today. After that contract, no others will be awarded without additional revenue from a new source, Clement said.

grayno@unionleader.com


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