My Turn: The key to the future is a modern transportation system
The Business and Industry Association recently announced its determination to prepare an economic plan for the future of New Hampshire. As reported, its process begins with several working groups examining different areas of interest, followed by a synthesis of ideas culminating in a written report. This offers us an opportunity to raise our eyes from the tips of our shoes to the far horizon.
I hope this process goes well. I want a lot of people who have ideas to throw them into the mix for thoughtful discussion and evaluation. And since I really like issues related to our infrastructure and transportation systems, I’ll offer a few thoughts of my own:
1. In the long run, it is more important that we create a modern, capable and secure transportation system than it is for us to continue the discussion of how we don’t want to pay for one. We have a well-established tradition of not wanting to pay for things. Everybody gets that. But if we don’t demonstrate some willingness to pay for the assets that move our goods, and us, lousy roads, broken bridges and second-class internet will eventually isolate us. None of that will bring new business to New Hampshire.
2. As we think about the future of our transportation systems, integration should be our primary objective. Everything we design and do should connect one transportation mode to another. Our airport needs to be connected to bus, truck and rail systems that allow people and goods to get where they’re going. Our rail systems should connect to bus and intermodal truck routes that move up and out from our stations. There is business growth to be had in all of this. There is none if we fail. We live in a competitive environment, and people will go where they can get the transport they need. It’s already happening.
3. Demographics must inform our planning process. Right now we are an aging state. Many older citizens do not want to drive everywhere. Buses and trains provide more reliable transportation service to an older population, particularly an older population that still wants to move around. And buses and trains belong in the center of urban areas, where people can get to them, not someplace else. A quick look at some of the urban redevelopment efforts in Sacco-Biddeford Maine, where a train station is helping to secure housing creation in an old industrial complex, helps to make the point.
4. We pay for most of our highway system with federal dollars and the gas tax. The state gas tax as currently designed is unable to sustain the system it is supposed to support. It’s designed wrong. The gas tax is some number of pennies per gallon. As cars get much more efficient, the amount of gas used per mile goes down, the pennies collected go down too, while the number of miles driven (the equivalent of wear on the highways) goes up. We need to make the gas tax a percentage of total price at the pump, some number of pennies per dollar shown on the dial. If we still want to rely on a gas tax, that’s the only way to maintain a revenue stream that will pay for fixing our roads and bridges. And because inefficient cars and trucks cost us all something in terms of air quality, maybe it’s time to think of a sliding scale registration fee, or a sliding scale mileage charge. None of this will be popular, but it’s a way of starting to pay for what we need.
5. Finally, a thought about the infrastructure for transmitting power: The state owns thousands of miles of right of way. As we plan for future development of an integrated transport system, why don’t we have our state contract directly with entities wanting to transmit and sell power? The state could require power lines to be buried in state-owned rights of way, with private producers and utilities paying the costs and a rental charge.
This isn’t my idea, but it sure seems appealing. A new state agency could be in charge of that process, acting for the benefit of the people of our state. It would seem to make a lot of sense.
I understand that the first reaction to this will be “Government is bad and inefficient” and “Democrats just want to raise taxes.” The answers to these assertions are “No, it isn’t” and “No, we don’t.” With that out of the way, can we now have a thoughtful discussion?
(Peter Hoe Burling of Cornish is a Democratic national committeeman.)