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State House Memo: Our roads, bridges are a mess; gas tax increase will help

New Hampshire’s state and municipal roads and bridges are in terrible condition. The problem is getting worse and more expensive each year. The recent unanimous, bipartisan endorsement of House Bill 617 as amended by the Public Works and Highways Committee is an acknowledgement of the dire need to repair our crumbling infrastructure.

For the past 22 years, consecutive Legislatures have neglected this problem, by declaring the state and its taxpayers could not afford to raise the gas tax. The fact is, we can’t afford not to.

New Hampshire’s highway system is its economic life blood, supporting commerce, tourism and our everyday lives. A good infrastructure is imperative for New Hampshire to compete with other states for new businesses and new jobs.

Today, by not properly funding or maintaining New Hampshire’s roads and bridges, we face an infrastructure crisis that is on its way to becoming a catastrophe. How big is the crisis?

∎ The widening of Interstate 93 (the main transportation artery into New Hampshire) is $250 million underfunded. Without new revenue it will not be completed.

∎ There are 1,661 miles of state roads rated in poor condition, needing major work (that’s more than one-third of New Hampshire’s 4,500 miles of state roads), ranking New Hampshire ninth worst nationally in rural roads. Without investing in our state roads, the miles in poor condition will continue to increase, as will the cost to repair them – exponentially.

∎ New Hampshire ranks 11th worst in bridge condition. There are 140 red list state bridges; without investing in bridges, that number will grow to more than 200 by 2020. The state’s No. 1 red list bridge is the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge connecting Portsmouth to Kittery, Maine (which was recently closed for four days). It will cost New Hampshire $85 million and is unfunded.

∎ New Hampshire’s towns and cities are in worse shape with 353 red list bridges – 10 to 12 of which are being closed each year. Their roads continue to deteriorate, and with dwindling state highway and bridge aid, towns must rely on property taxes for the revenue to fix problems that are too big for local property taxpayers to bear.

HB 617 directly addresses these problems.

It raises the gas tax by 4 cents per gallon of gasoline in each of the following three fiscal years and 3 cents per gallon in the fourth fiscal year for a total of 15 cents by 2017. This user fee was last raised in 1991.

For some context: New Hampshire has the lowest gas tax in the Northeast and second lowest across the nation’s frostbelt.

Importantly, this bill sets up a separate protected fund, within the already constitutionally protected highway fund, so that every penny will be used to fund the maintenance, construction and reconstruction of New Hampshire’s state and municipal roads and bridges.

Refunds on gas taxes for non-highway uses, such as boating and snowmobiling, are rebates which citizens can and should claim. Under current law, the distributed un-refunded monies are not part of the highway fund.

This new revenue, over the next decade, will strengthen the New Hampshire economy by finishing I-93 and reducing the number of state red list bridges and state roads in poor condition.

HB 617 will also significantly help municipalities fix their roads and bridges by increasing municipal aid by 70 percent.

This bill doubles state bridge aid and state highway aid for municipalities and municipal block grant aid by 50 percent.

Once the increase is fully phased-in, and if every penny passes through to the consumer (which testimony indicates it will not), a New Hampshire motorist who drives 12,000 miles per year at 22.5 mpg will pay $80 more per year. Those who drive less pay less; those who use the roads more pay more.

Compare this number to the recent study indicating the average New Hampshire driver now pays annually $323 in added automobile repairs (up from $259 four years ago)!

This bill will have a direct positive economic impact by creating or saving more than 1,000 construction jobs and hundreds of millions of construction dollars invested within New Hampshire, putting the state back on an
eight- to 10-year repaving
cycle, thereby saving taxpayers millions of dollars more. This legislation funds no additional government jobs.

It is fiscally irresponsible for the Legislature to neglect adequate funding of our infrastructure. Over time, inflation and the rate and scope of decay make repairs increasingly expensive.

Without immediate investment, our crumbling infrastructure will put a stranglehold on New Hampshire’s economy.

New Hampshire’s present and future taxpayers, the driving public, the tourism industry and its overall economy cannot afford to further delay raising sufficient funds to properly fix our roads and bridges.

(Nashua Rep. David B. Campbell is chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee.)

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