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March 27. 2014 8:10PM

Gas tax bill that would eliminate Merrimack tollbooth cruises through Senate

CONCORD — The state Senate Thursday voted 15-9 to send to the House a 4.2-cent-a-gallon hike in the state’s 18-cent gas tax, effective July 1.

Senate Bill 367 would use the money to pay for the completion of the Interstate 93 expansion between Salem and Manchester, rebuild the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge between Maine and New Hampshire in Portsmouth and eliminate the Exit 12 ramp toll in Merrimack on the F.E. Everett Turnpike — a controversial proposal pushed by Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford.

The bill does not necessarily face smooth sailing in the House, which has traditionally opposed eliminating existing tolls.

The Senate initially approved the bill, 14-9, on March 13 and sent it to its finance committee for review of how an estimated $32 million in revenue generated by the increased tax should be used.

“This final result we should all be proud of,” said Senate Transportation Committee chairman and the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry. “All in all this was a problem-solving effort done in the best interest of our citizens and our state.”

Rausch had vowed to do something this session to address the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure after the Senate rejected a House-approved 12-cent gas tax increase last year.

Gov. Maggie Hassan praised the Senate vote.

“Addressing our transportation challenges is essential for the success of New Hampshire’s people and businesses and for encouraging long-term economic growth,” Hassan said. “Today’s bipartisan vote to strengthen infrastructure investment reinforces that there is broad consensus that we must take action to improve New Hampshire’s roads and bridges.”

Under the plan, the money in the first two years would be dedicated to local and state roads and bridges. Beginning in fiscal 2017, about half the money would be used to pay off the $200 million in bonds issued for the completion of the I-93 expansion.

The Senate Finance Committee, working with House Transportation Committee Chairman David Campbell, D-Nashua, is proposing that $12 million a year go to reconstruct about 36 miles of the state’s worst roads, $13 million to pave about 190 miles of roads in fair condition, and $7 million a year in additional money for municipal bridge aid during the first two years of the increase.

Rausch has said if an individual drives 10,000 miles a year in a vehicle that averages 25 miles per gallon, the tax hike will cost them $16 more a year.

Opponents of the increase said no matter how small, many residents of the state cannot afford it.

“With the working families of New Hampshire still struggling with an economy that has not grown wages, as well as a significant federal tax increase in January, the last thing we need is a 23 percent increase in the tax on gas and diesel,” said Greg Moore, Americans For Prosperity-NH State Director. “Not only will this take more of the hard-earned money out of the pockets of our citizens at the pump, it will also increase the cost of goods and services.”

Senate Bill 367 calls for the one-time increase to take effect July 1. The increase would be repealed once the bonds to finish the I-93 expansion are paid off in about 20 years.

The Senate vote saw one Democrat join eight Republicans in opposing the bill, while five Republicans joined 10 Democrats in voting in favor. No one spoke against the increase on the Senate floor.

The gas tax has not been increased since 1991.

grayno@unionleader.com


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