CONCORD — Merrimack could at long last be free of the Exit 11 tolls on the F.E. Everett Turnpike as soon as New Year’s Day.
The long campaign to give Merrimack drivers relief from the ramp tolls took an historic step forward Wednesday when the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation voted 4-1 in favor of reducing the Exit 11 toll to zero for both the north and south-bound ramps.
Drivers currently pay 50 cents on the northbound off-ramps and southbound on-ramps at both exits 10 and 11 in Merrimack. Those with E-ZPass transponders pay 35 cents.
Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, advanced the proposal at the first advisory commission meeting since Gov. Chris Sununu earlier this week urged the Executive Council to take action.
“I’m so delighted we are taking this move,” Pignatelli said. “I have been trying since 2004 to get the council on board with this idea and this is the first time I’ve had at least three votes to get it done.”
The vote instructed Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan to bring the proposal as an item on the next agenda of the Executive Council when it meets Nov. 25.
The 4-1 vote of the councilors, who are members of the the advisory commission, virtually assures the plan will be approved. The only opponent of the plan is Councilor Michael Cryans, D-Hanover.
State Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, attended Wednesday’s meeting and praised the councilors.
“This is a huge step forward for the people of Merrimack. Our point has always been that we need to maintain the financial integrity of the turnpike system but not on the backs of Merrimack,” Chandley said.
Legally, only the Legislature has the power to eliminate a tollbooth by passing a state law that removes it from the books.
The Executive Council, however, has the sole authority to set rates that are charged to motorists at tollbooths.
Earlier this week, Sununu suggested lowering the ramp toll rate to zero after meeting with town officials and House Republican Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack.
“The residents of Merrimack have borne a disproportionate share of our turnpike tolls for too long, and restoring fairness to the system is the right thing to do,” Sununu tweeted.
Chandley has authored a bill (SB 300) to eliminate the toll at Exit 11; that measure will be taken up by the House of Representatives early on during the 2020 session.
“For the past year we have been building momentum for this. I believe the unanimous vote of the state Senate for my legislation was a significant step,” Chandley said.
Transportation Commissioner Sheehan said the agency will need to post signs about the toll rate change and also move to reassign toll takers to other tollbooths in the turnpike system.
She said the loss in state revenue would not be “significant.”
Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, said one of the reasons he supports the idea is that it costs the state more money to maintain these tollbooths than the state receives in revenue.
“This gives the ability of the people of Merrimack to get some relief immediately,” Gatsas said. “If that is what we are attempting to do that is what we should do.”
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 jobs to its nearby Merrimack complex.
The boulevard, which runs from Exit 11 to Route 101A, now includes many other industrial and retail companies.
Turnpike officials said the DOT spent $600,000 to repave Continental Boulevard two years ago and spends about $80,000 annually on upkeep.
Town officials have been opposed to paying to maintain that road.
There were ramp tolls at all three Merrimack exits until 2014, when the state eliminated the toll at Exit 12 (Bedford Road).
Exit 10 leads to Industrial Drive, which serves Fidelity, the Merrimack Premium Outlets and several major businesses including Anheuser-Busch.