Editorial: Pay for infrastructure? We can’t afford not to
The argument is being made by Republican Sens. Andy Sanborn, Chuck Morse and others that the state’s struggling families can’t afford an increase in the gasoline tax of 15 cents over four years. Nor, say many in and outside of government, can the state afford to help communities replace antiquated schools, red-listed bridges, inadequate wastewater treatment plants and failed sewer lines. The fact is, New Hampshire and its cities and towns can’t afford not to refurbish or replace failing infrastructure. The economic future of the state and the well-being of its citizens depends on doing so.
In spots in Boscawen, raw sewage bubbles up from the ground where ancient, clay sewer pipes have cracked, collapsed or been blocked by tree roots. In the southwest part of town, the lines carrying sewage and surface water have not been separated as they should be. That forces the town of 4,000 to pay the Penacook wastewater plant to treat rainwater. The lines were due to be separated, but the state hasn’t been able to come up with its 10 percent share of the cost. Without its contribution, the cost to the low-income community is unaffordable.
Public investment in infrastructure, or the lack of it, has a profound impact on the macroeconomic and microeconomic level. Hillsboro Rep. Marjorie Porter wrote about the latter in a recent column for our sister publication, the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. She learned, after losing her muffler to a pothole on Route 149, that that stretch of state highway was officially classified as in poor repair. The bill to replace her muffler: $780.
A gasoline tax, like most user fees, is regressive. It hits people with low incomes and old cars the hardest. But for low-income vehicle owners, the pain of paying an extra dollar or so per fill-up is nothing compared to the pain that comes with a sudden $780 bill to get a car back on the road.
The state, Porter wrote, now has 1,661 miles of road rated as “in poor repair,” up from 630 miles in 2000. Bridges are being added to the red list faster than they’re being taken off. We’re now ninth from the bottom nationally in the condition of the state’s roads. That’s affecting New Hampshire’s ability to attract employers who provide good jobs.
The state’s No. 1 red-listed bridge, the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge over the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, provided a dramatic lesson in infrastructure economics in January. It got stuck open, closing the bridge to Maine and the river to tankers serving Public Service, Irving Oil and Sprague Energy for four days. The bridge was going to be patched and kept in service, but then a big problem became evident: The distance between the bridge’s upright spans is too narrow to accommodate the new, wider ships being built. Simply repairing the bridge would likely spell the end of Portsmouth as a major seaport. The bridge is now scheduled to be replaced at a cost not to exceed $170 million and its span enlarged to 300 feet.
It would take more than $1 billion just to remedy all of New Hampshire’s road and bridge problems, which means it will have to be done in stages. But it must be done at a pace that exceeds the deterioration of the infrastructure. The New England Council, in a recent study, took a look at what an investment that large would do over five years if spread across the entire region. The answer: a better, more productive and competitive economy and some 135,000 new jobs. It won’t solve Boscawen’s sewer problems, or help a community replace a decrepit school. But a Senate vote to raise the gas tax would be a good place to start rebuilding the infrastructure.
*This editorial was updated on March 15 to correct an error in the price of Rep. Marjorie Porter’s car repair.