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Sununu puts the brakes on toll debate

New Hampshire Union Leader
December 21. 2017 2:50PM

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu brought the debate over raising tolls on the state's turnpikes to a sudden end on Thursday, saying the process had dragged on for too long.

Sununu decided that allowing the Executive Council to consider the up to 50 percent increase for more than a month was time enough.

"Dragging this process out is not productive," Sununu said. "As such, I will not allow this toll increase to move forward."

Executive councilors and Department of Transportation managers had agreed to submit the toll increase as an item at the next council meeting on Jan. 10, but Sununu's decision erases that option.

A majority on the council backed the plan. (Click here for a related editorial.)

"Had the council ultimately voted in favor of toll increases, I would have negated their vote," Sununu said.

Republican legislative leaders, the truckers lobby and fiscally conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Josiah Bartlett Center all praised Sununu's decision.

"I didn't know what was going to happen but I was very grateful about this," said Robert Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transportation Association.

"There were a lot of unnecessary moving parts in our opinion and we appreciate the governor doing the right thing," Sculley said.

Sununu's critics said the governor's move was arrogant and denied many proponents the chance for a vote on whether to devote $36 million more a year from higher tolls to expedite the completion of current turnpike projects and add new ones to the 10-year plan.

"This is not just virtual, it's an actual overnight change of mind," said Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord. "This is an indication of the governor's lack of focus; he doesn't spend a lot of time fretting the details of governing."

A short time later Thursday, Sununu tweeted about the controversy while volunteering in Bedford for the Salvation Army Kettle Campaign.

"The basket that Granite Staters should be putting their extra change into this holiday season is from organizations such as the @SalvationArmyUS, not a toll booth along the highway," Sununu tweeted.

The toll hike, of up to 50 percent, would have been the first in a decade.

Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley accused Sununu of deceiving the public about his views.

"Governor Sununu tried to pull the wool over New Hampshire's eyes by publicly opposing a toll increase while putting it on the agenda to get passed. Instead, he got caught in his trick," Buckley said. "With Sununu's rejection of this bipartisan plan proposed by a member of his own party, Sununu now has the responsibility of proposing an alternative way to find the revenue to tackle these important infrastructural fixes."

The Republican councilor who advanced the package, Russell Prescott of Exeter, said he's not angry about the governor's rejection and hopes it leads to finding other ways to support more infrastructure spending than through toll increases.

Prescott was the decisive vote on the Governor's Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation that last month advanced it to the council.

"We find solutions that are the most fiscally responsible. It was not responsible to do nothing at all," Prescott said. "Our advice was just that, advice, and the governor's role is to do with that as he chooses. We will see with the next process whether there is another way to make our roads safer sooner than we are doing right now."

The third supporter of the toll increase on the council, Manchester Democrat Chris Pappas, was roundly criticized since he's also a candidate for Congress, running to replace Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in 2018.

Pappas said he'll keep pursuing a plan to spend enough money on infrastructure.

"I'm open to any ideas Governor Sununu or the Legislature has to move forward on these much needed repairs," Pappas said. "As for me, I will continue to support ways to modernize our transportation infrastructure so it serves the needs of the residents and businesses of New Hampshire."

Councilors David Wheeler, R-Milford, and Joseph Kenney, R-Wakefield, had opposed the plan, Wheeler calling the process "garbage" because supporters came up with a toll increase first and then spent the proceeds on projects.

"I think the real public was opposed to this — all the people I was running into," Wheeler said.

"They don't want to pay more anymore. Nobody is getting a 50 percent pay increase. It is just too much, too quick. We had a restrained, balanced 10-year plan before the increase."

But Greg Moore, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said he believes Sununu's actions shut the door on toll increases next year, especially since the leaders of both houses of the Legislature oppose them.; Staff reporter Michael Cousineau contributed to this story.

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