N.H. DOT commissioner: We need more resources
Editorial board with DOT Commissioner Chris Clement
on Tuesday, January 7, 2014.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Chris Clement, the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, is a man who likes numbers. Just not his numbers.
He’s paving 200 fewer miles of roads a year than he’d like to. The number of “red-listed” state bridges is 145 and climbing. He’ll begin 2016 with a $48 million deficit in the highway fund. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s roads are in poor condition.
And while plenty of lawmakers say they want to finish improvements to Interstate 93, they’ve put $0 toward the $250 million bill.
Lawmakers reconvene today and will consider a few bills this session that would send more money Clement’s way, either from casino proceeds or a bump in the gas tax. The same lawmakers vetoed both ideas last year.
Since then, Clement has taken his case to the public, talking with locals in small meetings across the state and handing out 5,000 copies of his PowerPoint presentation along the way.
“I’m revenue agnostic,” Clement said in an interview with Monitor editors yesterday. “I’m not going to say (I want a) gas tax or casino. We are just presenting the needs. We are saying we have the need here and wherever the funding comes from . . . is just fine with us.”
In his Monitor interview yesterday, Clement went through his 53-page presentation, counting the ways he believes the state’s roads and bridges are dangerously deteriorating.
Clement discussed the promise he saw in last year’s gas tax bill from Rep. David Campbell, which would have increased the gas tax by 12 cents over three years, giving the DOT an additional $93 million a year – enough, Clement said, to cover the department’s immediate needs and work on I-93.
This year’s gas tax bill from Sen. Jim Rausch, a Derry Republican, would add 4 or 5 cents to the gas tax, generating $28 million a year for the DOT. If the bill passes, it would be the first increase in the gas tax – and thereby the state’s highway budget – since 1992.
But it would still fall short of what Clement argues his department needs.
“If the Legislature lets me use those funds, do I use all those funds and plug the operational hole in DOT and not fix roads and bridges and not continue (improvements on) I-93? Or do you use it toward I-93?”
Here’s what Clement wants lawmakers and the public to know about the upkeep – or lack thereof – of roads and bridges they use daily:
∎ Since 1991, the DOT has reduced staff by 22 percent, or 430 positions. In that time, the amount of traffic on the roads has increased 30 percent.
∎ The number of miles plowed in an average snowstorm would equal nine trips to Alaska and back.
∎ If the Legislature does not increase the DOT’s budget and Clement is left with a $48 million deficit, he will have to eliminate up to 700 positions or a combination of positions and programs.
∎ The number of “structurally deficient” state bridges will reach 175 by 2016. Clement said he doesn’t have the money to repair bridges and reduce that number.
∎ There is $500 million worth of turnpike projects that won’t be completed without more money. That includes a $195 million plan to widen I-93 in Bow and Concord.
∎ Thirty-seven percent of the state’s roads considered to be in “poor” condition equal the number of miles between Concord and Fargo, N.D. And the DOT is investing its limited dollars in the state’s other roads instead because it costs $50,000 a year to improve a mile of a “good” or “fair” road and $1.1 million a mile to do the same for a poor road.
∎ A federal program that brings the state $140 million to $150 million for road work expires in September. “If Congress doesn’t come together with another . . . program, that’s going to cause us problems,” Clement said.
∎ The $30 surcharge on car registrations the 2010 Legislature repealed raised $45 million for the DOT in one year.
Clement came to the DOT in 2008, initially as deputy commissioner, from private business. In his former life, numbers like these drove budget decisions. The transition to a government job has been a difficult one.
“I come into state government and I’m trying to sell the need for investment, and that’s how I look at all of this stuff, is investment . . . and it’s much more difficult because of politics. And because of the need to educate both the public, the businesses and the policymakers.”
Clement’s persistence in making his case has put him at odds with some lawmakers. That’s a risk he feels he needs to take.
“I’m not going to give up,” he said. “I’m going to keep communicating the need. I’m going to keep going out there and presenting just the facts.”
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)