Raising gas tax would be less expensive than commuter rail
Grant Bosse (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Back in the Golden Age of Rail, railroads used to run things in New Hampshire politics. The votes may have taken place at the State House, but the real business of government was done across the street at the Eagle Hotel, where men who ran the Boston & Maine Railroad held court.
The B&M used to hand out free rail passes to all legislators, except the ones silly enough to oppose them. It was the railroad who decided who both major parties would nominate.
Back in 1901, the B&M decided that U.S. Sen. William E. Chandler had become too much of a nuisance and persuaded the New Hampshire Legislature to replace him with part-time judge Henry Burnham.
Since then, we’ve adopted direct primaries and direct election of senators to avoid such corruption. But from recent events in Concord, you might think the railroad tycoons are back in charge.
The Capital Budget Overview Committee recently approved a $1.9 million feasibility study for the Capital Corridor Project, and it’s likely the Executive Council will do the
same next month. The Capital Corridor Project is the Holy Grail for New Hampshire railheads. For the low, low cost of $300 million, it would double the existing track from Lowell, Mass., to Concord, buy the rolling stock and pay for three years of operating costs. After that, New Hampshire taxpayers would be the hook for the massive operating losses that such boondoggle would incur.
I’ve documented why commuter rail is a bad idea for New Hampshire, but passenger train advocates insist it’s a good way to spend the federal government’s money. It would be unfair to scapegoat rail subsidies for our current $16.4 trillion national debt, but not the cavalier attitude that local officials have towards spending federal money.
The 2012 election has re-energized the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, the state board created by then-Gov. John Lynch in 2007 to spearhead the commuter rail project. The RTA was nearly repealed last year but lives on as yet another way for state bureaucrats to spend our money in an attempt to get us to spend even more. This taxpayer-funded lobbying group is now asking to be part of the group crafting the contract for the feasibility study.
So, a state bureaucracy whose top priority is to build a commuter rail project wants have oversight over a study to determine if that very project is a good idea. The fix is in. This study is not intended to generate any new data. It is advocacy shabbily disguised as research.
Nashua would get more benefit from lighting $1.6 million on fire than from this feasibility study. At least they could toast some marshmallows. Spending the federal government’s cash on this document is a complete waste.
But while the Capital Corridor Project is politically popular nonsense, raising the state gas tax is a reasonable proposal worthy of consideration. It’s likely dead on arrival.
This week, Gov. Maggie Hassan promised to veto a proposed increase in New Hampshire’s beer tax if it makes it to her desk, yet she remains committed to foisting another tax increase on Granite State smokers. More people drink beer than smoke. And a lot more drive. I would be surprised to see gas taxes go up this year. But I would a lot less upset about it than you’d think.
Nashua Democrat David Campbell wants to increase the current 18 cent per gallon tax on gasoline by 12 cents and dedicate the money for state and local transportation projects.
The current gas tax, officially known as the Road Toll, isn’t indexed for inflation or the price of gasoline and hasn’t been increased since 1991.
Every tax is a bad idea. But some are necessary. Governments should seek funding sources that cause the least interference in the marketplace. Too often, as with tobacco, lawmakers see the tax code as way to change behavior rather than raise revenue.
The gas tax is one of the least economically inefficient methods that state governments have to raise revenue, and one of the few directly tied to the appropriations it supports. It is also one of the least popular. The more you drive, the more you pay. Heavy trucks burn more gas, and cause wear and tear on public roads. If we really needed more money for infrastructure, the gas tax would probably be the least harmful way to get it.
New Hampshire has a bipartisan tradition of raiding highway and turnpike spending to pay for the rest of state government. The Legislature declared the Interstate 93 widening project as the state’s top transportation priority but funds everything else first. We add bridges to the Red List often for reasons unrelated to safety.
Roads need paving. Bridges need maintenance. We should look at the waste in our current transportation budget before we ask New Hampshire drivers to pay more. And we should never ask them to subsidize a mostly empty commuter train to Concord.
(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy.)