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Executive Council likely to put off vote on toll hike

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Monitor staff
Monday, December 04, 2017

A planned vote on whether to increase New Hampshire toll rates by 25 to 50 percent will likely be put on hold this week after a member of the Executive Council says more time is needed to hear from the public.

Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, is asking the state Department of Transportation to withdraw its toll-hike proposal from the Executive Council agenda, he said Monday. If the department doesn’t remove the item itself, Prescott, a swing vote, said he will vote down the measure himself.

Prescott, who requested the department draft the proposal, said he’s still in favor of raising toll fees but was unaware that the measure would be put to a vote so quickly.

“To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse,” he said Monday. “Public input is very important.”

Unveiled at a Nov. 22 meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation, the proposal would increase toll booth rates across New Hampshire with the intention of accelerating construction on road projects. Under the plan, cash rates at the toll booth in Hooksett would increase from $1 to $1.50, and EZ-Pass charges from 70 cents to $1.05. The Hooksett Interstate-93 ramp, which currently charges 50 cents cash, would increase to 75 cents.

Under New Hampshire law, the Executive Council and governor have the sole authority to raise rates across the state’s toll system, a move that has not been made since 2007.

But the plan, which the department estimated would bring in an additional $36 million a year, has come under heavy criticism by conservative groups, who have labeled it a last-minute tax. In recent days, advocacy groups such as Americans for Property have organized a phone campaign intended to turn Prescott around.

Prescott’s two Republican colleagues, David Wheeler R-Milford, and Joe Kenney, R-Union, said they oppose a toll increase. Both Democratic members of the five-member council support the move. Speaking Monday, Volinsky said while he believes in the increase, he is open to putting off this week’s planned vote to hear more from residents.

The effort to table the vote comes ahead of a planned 6 p.m. hearing at the Portsmouth Public Library Monday, which Prescott said he would not be able to attend due to a health emergency.

As Prescott explained it, removing the toll hike proposal from the regular council agenda Wednesday would still allow the council to include the toll hike in its draft 10-Year Transportation Plan. But that draft plan isn’t expected to be approved and recommended to the governor until Dec. 20, after which community planning councils traditionally host hearings across the state. Prescott said he would push for the toll hike to be reintroduced before the council’s Jan. 3 meeting, two weeks ahead of the Jan. 15 deadline for Gov. Chris Sununu to submit a proposal to the Legislature.

Prescott said the Department of Transportation would likely move to withdraw Wednesday’s motion itself; a spokesman for the department could not be immediately reached.

Meanwhile, whether the plan is reintroduced to the Executive Council in January is up to the governor, who has final say over which items are put to council approval. Sununu allowed the proposal to move forward last week despite personal opposition, saying he respects the council’s prerogative to control toll rates.

Asked whether Sununu would put the item back on the agenda in January, a spokesman did not directly answer. But he said the governor agrees with hearing from the public.

“We understand the councilors are considering removing the toll increase vote from the agenda in an effort to allow for a more robust public comment process,” the spokesman, Ben Vihstadt, said. “Governor Sununu would respect and support that.”

Both Volinsky and Prescott said they’re open to hearing more public opinion on toll increases. But Prescott, a crucial vote, said that barring “huge and obvious” public opposition, he will likely continue to support the plan. Part of the money would go toward erecting long-awaited sound barriers along I-95 in Portsmouth, a city Prescott represents; other projects to be accelerated include two accident-prone exits in Manchester.

“I would not have brought forward a toll proposal had I not believed it is the right way for us to ultimately save money for those that are traveling,” Prescott said Monday.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at@edewittNH.)