CONCORD — Merrimack legislators pitched to a key House committee Tuesday an incremental compromise to the Senate-passed bill that eliminates one of two remaining turnpike ramp tolls in their town.
Last spring, first-term Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Merrimack, was able to convince her colleagues to unanimously pass legislation getting rid of the 50-cent ramp toll on both sides of Exit 11 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.
But on Tuesday, her House colleagues faced a much more difficult task as the measure went before the House Public Works and Highway Committee, which has been the political graveyard for this campaign over the past decade.
Committee Chairman John Cloutier, D-Claremont, said the panel will make a recommendation to the full House on this measure (SB 300) by Nov. 6.
“Personally, I think it is going to need some work to pass. It’s a two-way street. I think we need to be careful with this bill,” Cloutier said at the close of a one-hour work session.
Rep. Wendy Thomas, R-Merrimack, urged committee members not to make anything out of the fact no town officials attended this meeting Tuesday.
“This is a huge topic on our forums. What you are seeing is battle fatigue; we have been fighting and fighting for this cause,” Thomas said.
Chandley had to make some accommodations to get the bill this far.
As it now stands, the Exit 11 ramp toll would not be removed until 2024 at the earliest, when bonds financed to build three Merrimack ramp tolls are finally paid off.
Transportation Deputy Commissioner Chris Waszczuk said toll revenues statewide were $129 million in 2018 and Exit 11 accounted for $1.3 million of that.
“Is it significant? No, but I wouldn’t call it a rounding error, either,” Waszczuk said of the Exit 11 toll receipts.
DOT’s immediate worry is how Wall Street bond rating agencies might react to doing away with any turnpike toll revenue source, officials said.
State Treasurer Bill Dwyer is expected next month to complete a refunding of turnpike toll bonds and the initial estimate for interest rate savings to the state is $11.3 million.
“I am concerned the rating agencies will view this more negatively” Waszczuk said. “My concern is the savings would not be as large.”
State Rep. Richard Barry, R-Merrimack, said one proposal would have the town 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 state DOT turning Continental Boulevard back over to town hands should be looked at as part of any further action on Merrimack tolls.
“We built Continental Boulevard and we continue to maintain it, so if anything were done with Exit 11, that would have to be considered,” Waszczuk said.
He told the House panel he would discuss the matter further with Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan.
Waszczuk said he would also come up with figures on the number of toll trips Merrimack residents take through the E-ZPass lanes on ramp tolls.
All E-ZPass users get a 30 percent discount for going through the tolls with a transponder.
Waszczuk ruled out another idea giving a bigger discount exclusively to Merrimack residents using ramp tolls in town.
“You have to offer a discount equally to all travelers,” Waszczuk said.
Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford, said a long-term solution to getting rid of all Merrimack ramp tolls could be moving the mainline toll from Bedford south into Merrimack.
The proposed 10-year highway plan calls for converting the Bedford mainline into open-road tolling as in Hooksett where motorists can travel through on dedicated lanes at the speed limit.
The entire stretch of the Everett Turnpike from Exit 8 in Nashua to the Route 101 interchange in Bedford will be widened to three lanes in both directions under the draft, 10-year plan, Graham said.
Moving the mainline toll south would capture an estimated $5 million annually the state doesn’t collect because northbound motorists avoid paying anything when they get off on the Manchester Airport Access Road (Raymond Wieczorek Drive) just south of the Bedford toll, Graham said.
Waszczuk said the access road was built with federal money and moving the mainline toll south just to recapture those airport access road dollars would run afoul of federal regulations.
The state could justify the move if the mainline toll was moved much farther south from its Bedford location to the area of Exits 10 or 11 in Merrimack, he added.