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Toll hike opponents bracing for battle

State House Bureau

November 29. 2017 11:27PM
Under the proposal being considered in Concord, tolls at the Bedford (above) and Hooksett plazas would be $1.50 for 2-axle vehicles. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

CONCORD — Just days before it may go before the Executive Council, a proposed increase in highway tolls will have a public hearing in Portsmouth next Monday night. Opponents are getting ready.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who won’t say if he will allow a council vote, requested the hearing after the 50 percent toll hike was proposed the day before Thanksgiving.

The decision rests with the five-member Executive Council, but the governor controls the council agenda, chairs the meetings, and can determine if the matter comes up for a vote. He also has the rarely used power to negate a council vote.

Robert J. Sculley, president of the N.H. Motor Transport group says he hopes “Gov. Sununu gets engaged, listens to the people of New Hampshire and stops this.”

Three of the five councilors have said they support the hikes — Democrats Chris Pappas of Manchester, Andru Volinsky of Concord, and Republican Russell Prescott of Kingston, who initiated the proposal.

Republican David Wheeler of Milford is opposed, while Republican Joe Kenney said he voted to recommend that the proposal be brought to the council for discussion, “but I have no intention of voting for it.”

The Dec. 6 council agenda is to be finalized on Friday. As of Wednesday, Sununu would not say whether he plans to include the toll hike proposal.

The proposal can be viewed below:

“It is important to recognize that the 10-year highway plan as well as consideration of any toll increases has been legislatively tasked to the Executive Council,” Sununu said in a statement. “While I oppose toll increases, I respect the council’s chartered responsibilities and have asked the councilors to consider holding an additional public hearing focused on allowing citizens to weigh in on this specific proposal.”

If implemented, the toll changes would be the first in a decade, and would accelerate the timetable for completing existing projects in the state’s 10-year highway plan, while adding some new ones.

The proposal would raise rates to $1.50 from $1 at the mainline tolls at Hooksett and Bedford. The Hampton toll would go to $2.50, and the toll plazas on the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover and Rochester would go up to $1 apiece from the current 75 cents.

All this would raise $36 million more a year and would pay for $750 million in upgrades over the next decade as long as the state issued a new, $50 million bond in 2022, according to the proposal created by the Department of Transportation at Prescott’s request.

Discounts are proposed for commuters who travel through multiple plazas and pay relatively high monthly tolls. With discounts accounted for, the DOT estimates the increases would raise annual toll revenue by 27 percent.

Sculley says the state 10-year highway plan is already fully funded as currently drafted. He says advancing completion dates and adding projects will be costly to his members like Ross Express, which currently pays $13,000 a month in tolls.

“His bill would go up more than $20,000 a year,” said Sculley. “This is the direct impact that the councilors who are voting for this aren’t considering.”

New Hampshire’s toll rate — averaging 6.2 cents per turnpike mile — is the sixth lowest in the country and well below the national average of 20.7 cents.

“I don’t know why we have to constantly apologize for being prudent and frugal and doing things that make a lot of sense,” said Sculley. “The same argument was used to raise the gas tax. We’re on the low end, so it’s OK to raise it.”

Coordinating opposition

Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said his conservative advocacy group is coordinating opposition with the motor transport people.

He said much of the pressure for the additional funding is coming from the road building and construction industry in the state, which is already benefitting from a 2014 increase in the gas tax and off-budget appropriations from the state surplus from fiscal year 2017.

“This is an obvious cash grab,” he said. “Even though they got a 23-percent increase in the gas tax and another $37 million in funding given out by the governor this year from surplus for infrastructure.”

The public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, at the Portsmouth Public Library.

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