CONCORD — The cost to collect cash at two turnpike ramp tolls in Merrimack is so high that the Department of Transportation is weighing whether to make them all-electronic with no live staffing, the agency’s deputy commissioner said Wednesday.
The ramps at Exits 10 and 11 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike have the highest cost of any in the entire turnpike system, Deputy Commissioner Chris Waszczuk told the House Public Works and Highways Committee.
The expense of taking cash at these staffed toll booths presently ranges from as low as 20 cents per transaction to as high as 93 cents at Exit 11, where the toll collected is only 50 cents.
What contributes to the high cost of staffing at these tolls is that most drivers using them — about 90% — have E-ZPass transponders and don’t need a human to collect what’s owed, Waszczuk said.
“We have even talked about having a quasi-electronic tolling at those locations, having no staff there and have images taken of the person going through and then a bill would be sent to them,” he said.
These exit ramps already aren’t staffed overnight or on the weekends, he said.
The toll change is only at the discussion stage thus far and Waszczuk said the DOT would likely ask the Legislature to weigh in.
Merrimack’s local and legislative officials said this DOT initiative underlines the need to eliminate the ramp tolls entirely, which they say unfairly trap local citizens using the turnpike as their road to get from one end of town to the other.
“This is such an issue of fairness to me,” said state Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, who has authored a Senate-passed bill (SB 300) to eliminate the Exit 11 ramp toll as soon as turnpike bonds are paid off. “There are only four exit ramp tolls in the entire system and two of them are in Merrimack.”
As it now stands, the Exit 11 ramp toll would not be removed until 2024 at the earliest, when bonds financed to build Merrimack ramp tolls are finally paid off.
Merrimack Town Council Chairman Tom Koenig said nearly all the $20 million in bonds for these exits will be paid off in 2020, but the bill would keep the tolls in place until a later bond for $405,000 gets paid off four years later.
“Simple math says if you are collecting $2 million a year we are going to collect another $8 million to pay off the last $405,000. Does that sound fair? Of course it’s not,” Koenig said during an interview after a House committee work session.
DOT officials have said the town should take over maintenance of Continental Boulevard from the state in exchange for removing the ramp toll at Exit 11.
The state agreed to widen that town feeder road more than 20 years ago to convince Fidelity Investments to bring more than 5,000 employees to its Merrimack complex right off Continental Boulevard.
The road now includes many other industrial and retail firms, including BAE Systems, Circuit Technology Inc., Tech Inc. and Shaw’s Supermarket.Waszczuk said the DOT spent $600,000 to repave the road two years ago and spends about $80,000 in annual upkeep.
Koenig said the town rejects any such trade.
“The town is not interested in that and I will argue no other town in the state is being asked to do that,” he said.
“Nashua and Manchester have contributed nothing while getting prime new exit ramps off the turnpike with no ramp tolls. I think again it’s another inequitable effort to saddle Merrimack with expenses that other townspeople do not have to shoulder.”
The House panel will meet in executive session in early November to make a recommendation on the bill.
Chandley and her predecessors in that seat have convinced the Senate several times to endorse toll relief for Merrimack, but this House committee has rejected all these efforts over more than a decade.
“I’m cautiously optimistic after hearing the questions from members of this committee that our message may be getting through,” Chandley said.