State House Memo: Money for bus stations doesn’t come from state Highway Trust Fund
Re “DOT isn’t quite as poor as it makes out” (Sunday Monitor Forum, Jan. 12):
Dick Lemieux argues that New Hampshire should stop spending its limited highway dollars on non-highway projects – implying that the state Department of Transportation is spending money from the New Hampshire Highway Trust Fund on non-highway projects, such as rail, bus and other non-highway projects. That is not true and, more important, it is unconstitutional for the state DOT to spend New Hampshire Highway Trust Funds on non-highway projects.
The crisis of our state’s Highway Trust Fund revenue not being sufficient to maintain and repair our state highway infrastructure and complete the Interstate 93 expansion is not because money is being spent on non-highway projects or any other misuse of the funds. It is critical that legislators be good stewards of the Highway Trust Fund and scrutinize all requests from any agency as a lawful use of the revenue before approval. Diversion of highway funds, no matter how small, jeopardizes not only safety but also jobs and the efficient transportation of commerce.
In 1938, New Hampshire voters overwhelmingly adopted a constitutional amendment, Article 6-a, known as the Highway Trust Fund, voting 80.2 percent in favor of a dedicated road toll (gas tax). This user fee requires that “all revenue in excess of the necessary cost of collection and administration accruing to the state from registration fees, operators’ licenses, gasoline road tolls or any other special charges or taxes with respect to the operation of motor vehicles or the sale or consumption of motor vehicle fuels shall be appropriated and used exclusively for the construction, reconstruction and maintenance of public highways within this state, including the supervision of traffic thereon and payment of the interest and principal of obligations incurred for said purposes; and no part of such revenues shall, by transfer of funds or otherwise, be diverted to any other purpose whatsoever.”
Lemieux’s column is misleading as it combines New Hampshire’s highway federal funds with New Hampshire’s protected Highway Trust Funds.
The public transit funds and other non-highway projects Lemieux references were paid for with federal highway dollars that are restricted for public transit, rail and aeronautic projects. The allocation of the federal dollars is reviewed every two years by the Executive Council, the governor and the Legislature through the 10-Year Highway Intermodal Plan public hearing process.
Again, the New Hampshire Constitution forbids state Highway Trust Fund revenue from funding non-highway projects.
The state DOT has wisely invested restricted federal dollars in building intermodal facilities such as the one on Stickney Avenue in Concord. The facility is just not a hub for public transportation to the south but to the northern part of our state as well. Yes, the state does build the bus stations, but then the state leases the facility through a competitive bid process to a bus line operator. The operator is responsible for maintenance and property liability.
The state DOT also invested in intermodal facilities and buses for the I-93 corridor as a mitigation condition to obtain the environmental permits for the I-93 expansion project. In 2013, an estimated 366,000 passengers used this service along the I-93 corridor from Manchester to the state line. Altogether, intercity bus services carry 1.3 million passengers a year in New Hampshire, ensuring the state’s investment of taxpayer dollars in the intermodal park & ride facilities is put to good use and produces positive benefits for the public.
As chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee and a former chairwoman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, I have heard numerous plans that have failed for lack of funding for bike paths, rail-to-trails, rail, inter- and intra-city bus service. I have witnessed the frustration from residents and municipalities at the lack of a state funding source for these transportation projects.
To suggest that the state Highway Trust Fund revenue shortfall is in part due to the state spending that money on non-highway projects is simply not accurate.
The revenue shortfall of our state’s Highway Trust Fund comes down to the following factors: the gas tax that was last raised 21 years ago, vehicles getting more miles per gallon and inflation in the cost of construction materials. Combined, that means there is not enough to meet the state’s basic needs to repair and maintain our roads and bridges, let alone complete the I-93 project.
Our gas and diesel tax is the lowest in New England, yet there is little if any difference in the price of fuel along our border. Big oil companies profit from our low fuel tax. Meanwhile, our residents and commercial truckers pay more in vehicle repair due to poor road conditions. Heavy commercial truck haulers such as loggers also lose when being re-routed miles out of their way because roads and bridges can’t take the weight of their loads. Having a safe and adequate transportation system that meets the needs of our state to transport people and commerce is critical to the economic growth and vitality of our state.
It is time to increase the gas tax, a true user fee, to meet the needs of our state.
(Concord Rep. Candace Bouchard is chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.)