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Legislative stalemate means more N.H. roads unpaved

A legislative stalemate over raising money for highways is putting the Interstate 93 expansion and other highway improvement projects at risk and could force laying off a third of New Hampshire’s transportation staff.

Two senators said they hope to resolve the looming crisis by bringing back the same funding methods rejected this year – casino gambling and higher gas taxes – and persuading lawmakers to support them.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Rausch, a Derry Republican, plans to bring in a bill to increase the tax on gas and diesel, and another bill to borrow money to finish the I-93 expansion and rebuild the Sarah Long Bridge in Portsmouth. He would pay off the loan with casino profits from a bill Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro plans to file.

D’Allesandro, of Manchester, said the casino bill will contain stronger regulatory requirements to answer critics of the defeated measure.

Both senators said their proposals are still being developed and could not give many specifics. But Rausch said he recognizes that the House could reject casino gambling again, so he’s working on an alternative way to pay for the borrowing for the I-93 and bridge projects.

“I’m not prepared to do nothing,” Rausch said.

Meanwhile, Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement said he will begin planning to lay off as many as 600 of the department’s 1,600 workers in 2015, when the current budget cycle ends, unless more money is pumped into the highway fund. That money would pay not just for operations and road fixes, but also for support to other agencies, particularly the Department of Safety. Clement estimates that safety officials would have to lay off 100 people if his projection of a $55 million highway fund shortfall in fiscal 2016 is accurate.

“Our mission will completely, completely change,” Clement said.

The state’s infrastructure woes have mounted over the years. The state addressed the problem by borrowing and by making a series of money infusions into the highway fund that can’t be repeated. Clement said money from those fixes runs out at the end of the two-year budget adopted in June.

Clement, Rausch and House Public Works and Highways Chairman David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat, say low interest rates make now a good time to borrow the $250 million needed to finish the I-93 expansion, but they need a way to pay back the loan.

Breaking the funding stalemate won’t be easy.

New Hampshire hasn’t increased its 18-cent gas and diesel tax in 22 years. A House proposal to phase in a 12-cent increase was summarily rejected this year by the Senate, which took the unusual step of barring further consideration of similar bills next year. The action was in response to the House rejecting a Senate casino bill that earmarked some profits to highways.

Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, has the power under Senate rules to decide whether Rausch’s tax proposal can be introduced next year, but he said he wants to see it first.

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan supports funding transportation projects through gambling proceeds and said during her campaign that she was open to discussions on raising the gas tax to fix deteriorating highways.

“The fact that there is consensus around the need is major progress. We’ve had disagreements about how we’re going to pay for it,” she said in a recent interview.

Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, said the state needs good infrastructure for business to expand. He said many of the 100,000 fans attending the two NASCAR events at the speedway complain about congestion on the two-lane highway to the track. Widening the road is in the state’s 10-year highway plan, but it has no funding, making it a low priority.

Gappens said track owner Bruton Smith thought New Hampshire was going to add a third lane to ease congestion and spur development near the track in 2010 when he decided against moving one race to Kentucky. He might have reconsidered if he had known the road wouldn’t be widened, Gappens said.

Campbell, the sponsor of this year’s defeated gas tax bill, said voters won’t punish lawmakers skittish about raising the tax.

“It’s a matter of political will in these halls more than on the street,” Campbell said.

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