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Proposed toll hike pulled from Executive Council agenda

December 05. 2017 10:38AM
Northbound tolls in Hooksett on Monday. A proposed 50 percent toll hike has been taken off of Wednesday’s Executive Council agenda. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu slammed the brakes on the fast-moving, controversial hike of up to 50 percent in proposed tolls on New Hampshire turnpikes at the urging of Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan.

The DOT chief requested putting off the Executive Council vote set for today hours after the New Hampshire Union Leader reported its most pivotal backer of the plan on the panel — Exeter Republican Councilor Russell Prescott — threatened to vote no unless more time was given for public input.

"Removing this proposal from the agenda will provide Granite Staters the opportunity to make their voices heard," Sununu said in a statement Tuesday morning. "I am opposed to a toll increase. As I have said, it is important for this process to remain open and public, and I am pleased that the Executive Council requested the toll increase be removed from the agenda to allow for a more robust public comment session."

DOT Commissioner Sheehan was out of the office Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

"The Department of Transportation is open to receiving additional public input on the proposal," Deputy Commissioner Chris Wasczcuk said in a statement.

The move likely puts off any consideration of the plan until next month.

Robert Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, said he hopes this ultimately sounds the death knell for the plan.

"This is good news for New Hampshire's truckers and all highway users on New Hampshire's turnpike system," Sculley said.

"We hope this item does not come back, and that the state exercises the same financial restraint that the small business community does moving forward."

But Peter Griffin, president of the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association, charged this was another troubling sign for a state that fails to spend enough money on upkeep and expansion of its transportation network.

"The toll debate is the continuation of that pattern: We do not want to fund infrastructure. Then how is it to be done?" Griffin asked.

"What they don't recognize is that New Hampshire is covered extensively by the Boston media channels. What signal does this send to potential businesses considering expanding or relocating that New Hampshire does not value investment in infrastructure?"

The decision also followed a spirited public hearing at Portsmouth City Hall where supporters and opponents of the toll hike squared off.

The Associated General Contractors and officials from many cities and towns lobbied for the toll hike Monday. Many business owners turned out to oppose it.

Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord and a key supporter of the toll hike, announced two other public hearings set for Concord next Tuesday and Manchester City Hall next Wednesday.

Under the proposal, rates would increase to $1.50 from $1 at the main tolls in Hooksett and Bedford. The Hampton toll on Interstate 95 would increase by 50 cents to $2.50, and the toll plazas on the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover and Rochester would go up to $1 from the current 75 cents.

The toll hike would raise about $36 million and turnpike purchase of a northern section of I-93 to the northern end of the Merrimack River Bridges in Concord would free up close to $200 million in spending on other state highway projects during the course of a 10-year highway plan.

The hikes would help pay for $750 million in upgrades over the next decade as long as the state also issues a new $50 million bond in 2022, according to the proposal the DOT created for council review.; Union Leader staff writer Michael Cousineau contributed to this report.

Politics New Hampshire Transportation

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