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April 16. 2014 9:30PM

Gas tax vote poses challenge for Merrimack lawmakers and eliminating local toll

MERRIMACK — The House will vote next week on a bill that would increase the gas tax while also eliminating the northbound and southbound ramp tolls from exit 12 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Merrimack — one of three turnpike exits in town.

“For 20 years we have been trying to achieve toll relief, and I think that is a compelling reason,” said Rep. Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack. “It is a difficult position because I don’t really want to see the gas tax increase. It does fly in the face of the pledge I took for no new taxes, but I had to weigh them both.”

He plans to support Senate Bill 367 and believes the bill will be approved by the House as it is currently written, which includes the elimination of the tolls at exit 12. The Senate has already passed the bill, while the House Public Works and Highways Committee and House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill on Tuesday.

“Our own representatives are split on this issue,” said Dan Dwyer, town councilor, who is not optimistic the toll provision within the bill will remain intact.

“Senator (Peter) Bragdon has vowed to take out a toll, but there is almost zero support for it in Concord. There are only eight Merrimack reps,” said Dwyer, maintaining exit 12 is the least-used exit of the three tollbooths, with fewer than 20 percent of local residents utilizing it.

The gas tax proposal includes a 4.2-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase starting July 1, which would represent the first increase in the gas and diesel tax since 1991. If the bill is approved and signed by the governor, the gas tax would rise from 18 to 22.2 cents per gallon.

The increase could potentially collect about $32 million a year, or about $588 million over the next two decades to be used to finish the Interstate 93 expansion from Salem to Manchester, along with other highway and bridge maintenance.

While Dwyer supports the gas tax — if the account is used appropriately — he said the existing highway fund is disingenuous because money is removed and spent on other efforts.

If exit 12 is removed, Bragdon said earlier that it would decrease revenue by about $500,000 a year, although he estimated that the Merrimack Premium Outlets are generating more toll revenue nearby, offsetting much of the lost revenue.

However, officials with the Department of Transportation believe the closure of the exit 12 ramp tolls could result in decreased revenues at other nearby Merrimack tolls as motorists choose to avoid them in favor of using exit 12.

Meanwhile, the Merrimack Town Council may soon select an attorney to represent the town in its potential lawsuit against the state because of the tolls.

khoughton@newstote.com


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