House Democrat’s plan would raise N.H.’s gas tax by 12 cents over 3 years

Last modified: 1/18/2013 12:46:32 AM
A senior Democratic lawmaker has proposed raising New Hampshire’s gas tax by 12 cents over the next three years to pay for road and bridge repairs that he and state transportation officials describe as critical.

In addition to hiking the gas tax from 18 cents to 30 cents per gallon, Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, wants to raise vehicle registration fees by $15 over the next three years. He said his proposal would mean an additional $100 million a year for the state and $15 million for towns and cities to repave deteriorated roads and repair or replace red-listed bridges.

“What we need to do as legislators, to not allow these problems to get bigger and more expensive – because the more we delay, the more expensive they become – is really not to keep things as they are today, which is really bad, but bring it up to at least maintenance level,” Campbell said yesterday during a briefing at the state Department of Transportation for representatives and senators from committees that deal with roads, taxes and the state budget.

Campbell’s bill may find support this year in the House, where Democrats hold a 221-179 majority.

“I think there’s some merit to it,” said Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat. “I think the caucus will probably want to hear more. . . . Speaking as an individual, from what I heard, I think it has a lot of merit.”

But Republicans hold a 13-11 majority in the state Senate.

“I don’t support it,” said Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who attended yesterday’s briefing. “That’s directly out of the citizens’ pockets in the state of New Hampshire. I think there’s other ways to solve it.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has been noncommittal on the question of a gas-tax hike or registration fee surcharge.

“We obviously have some unmet needs in terms of our infrastructure. I’ve made that a priority,” Hassan told reporters yesterday.

“We need a strategy,” she added. “We need to do it through consensus, with both political parties and both chambers. I know there are a lot of different efforts out there and a lot of people focused on different ways to meet our infrastructure needs. And I’m focused on a way to build consensus around those efforts. I haven’t seen a specific proposal that meets that consensus test yet. So we are still talking to people and working on that.”

New Hampshire’s gas tax of 18 cents hasn’t been raised since 1991. Chris Clement, commissioner of the state DOT, said last year that a gas-tax hike could provide revenue for road and bridge projects, as well help pay for the ongoing widening of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire.

But Clement told lawmakers yesterday that he doesn’t want to tread on their turf, and isn’t personally calling for any tax or fee increase.

“I’m very respectful of your position. . . . I never say, ‘We need to raise the gas tax.’ I never say, ‘We need to raise the registration fees.’ I never say that, just communicate the needs,” he said.

Clement did brief them on the state of New Hampshire’s road system. Just 19 percent of the state’s road pavement is in good condition, he said, with 44 percent rated fair and 37 percent rated poor. Some 140 state-owned bridges and 353 locally owned spans are red-listed, meaning they have one or more major structural elements in poor or worse shape.

He said he needs an additional $12 million a year just to maintain the current level of good- and fair-rated roads, and an extra $15 million to keep the number of state-owned red-listed bridges flat.

“We’re not trying to be greedy. We’re trying to be honest,” Clement said.

Hence, Campbell said, his bill, which he said is based on information from Clement on what revenue would be needed to begin to improve road and bridge conditions in the state.

“That’s not to make it all gold-gilded,” Campbell said. “That’s just to start to decrease it.”

Under his proposal, the gas tax would increase by four cents in each of the next three years. Registration fees also would increase, by $5 a year for three years.

That would leave the state gas tax at 30 cents, 67 percent higher than it is today.

Campbell said the money would be dedicated solely to road and bridge maintenance. As it does today, a portion of the revenue would be passed directly to towns and cities in the form of highway block grants. And in the third year, he said, municipal bridge aid would double from $6.8 million a year to $13.6 million.

Yesterday’s briefing came two days after Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled an ambitious transportation-infrastructure plan that would require an extra $1 billion in revenue, including a potential increase in the state’s gas tax from 21 cents to 51 cents per gallon. Like New Hampshire, Massachusetts hasn’t raised its gas tax since 1991.

“Gov. Deval Patrick gets it. He gets it. He’s positioning his state. He’s getting innovative,” Clement said. “We can’t let Massachusetts trump us. We’re smarter than Massachusetts. We’re New Hampshire.”

(Annmarie Timmins contributed to this report. Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)Clarification: An earlier version of this article should have made clear that a 30-cent increase in Massachusetts' gas tax was one of several options presented to Gov. Deval Patrick by the commonwealth's Department of Transportation as potential funding for an additional $1 billion a year in transportation spending.

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