Executive Council pushes for 50 percent hike in N.H. tolls

  • A tollbooth worker greets drivers at the Hooksett tolls. Tim Goodwin / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/28/2017 12:27:34 AM

Executive Councilors are contemplating a 50 percent increase to tolls on New Hampshire roadways – including the plaza on Interstate 93 in Hooksett – in order to fund an acceleration of long-term construction projects.

A proposal presented to councilors by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation on Wednesday would raise cash fees at the Hooksett tollbooth from $1 to $1.50, and EZ-Pass charges from 70 cents to $1.05. The Hooksett I-93 ramp, which currently charges 50 cents cash, would increase to 75 cents; other toll areas in Hampton, Dover and Rochester would increase by lower amounts.

The pricing scheme, drawn up at the request of Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, would bring in $36 million in additional revenue a year, the department said. The money would help to speed up a range of slated highway projects, including a long-planned widening of I-93 between Concord and Bow to reduce weekend congestion, according to the proposal.

Councilors voted Wednesday, 4-1, to recommend the proposal to Gov. Chris Sununu, in a non-binding vote at a meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation.

The department’s proposal includes a price control system that would give New Hampshire residents a capped number of exemptions, intended to lessen the impact. Unlike the toll increases themselves, those additional price rules would need approval from the Legislature.

Whether the price hike moves ahead depends on Sununu. The Executive Council has sole authority to approve toll increases in New Hampshire, but the governor can control whether that increase appears on the council’s agenda, giving him an effective pocket veto.

In a statement Monday, Sununu, a former councilor himself, suggested he would allow it to move forward for the council to decide, despite personal opposition.

“It is important to recognize that the 10-year highway plan as well as consideration of any toll increases has been legislatively tasked to the Executive Council,” he said. “Only in extreme circumstances do I believe that interfering with that process would be warranted.”

He added: “While I oppose toll increases, I respect the Council’s chartered responsibilities and have asked the councilors to consider holding an additional public hearing focused on allowing citizens to weigh in on this specific proposal.”

A spokesman was not available to clarify whether the proposed hikes qualify as extreme circumstances.

The proposed increases would be the first time systemwide toll fees were changed in New Hampshire since 2007.

In its proposal, the Department of Transportation presented the fee increase as a means to tackle long-standing projects, including a $122 million widening along the F.E. Everett Turnpike south of Bedford, and a $90 million reconstruction of I-93’s accident-prone Exit 6 in Manchester. Provided that the state secures a $50 million bond, the revenue could speed up completion time for many projects by years, according to department projections.

As for Concord, the department pointed to its plans to install an additional lane as a means to reduce traffic and encourage tourism. Driving data indicate that drivers stuck in Friday afternoon gridlock between Concord and Hooksett spend an average of 15 minutes’ additional travel time, wasting $5 per trip and creating an annual net loss of $1.6 million, the proposal states. According to department projections, the widening – estimated at $261 million – would be completed in 2027 with the price hikes, six years earlier than current estimates.

Overall, taking into account the proposed price controls for local travelers, New Hampshire commuters would see an average annual fee increase of 27 percent, the department said. 54 percent of the tolls would be paid by out-of-state drivers, the department said.

Speaking Monday, Prescott touted the ability to use the money for projects that have stalled, such as the approved construction of sound barriers along Interstate 95 in Portsmouth that had been unfunded for years.

“I’m leaning towards a yes on this,” he said. “I’m looking forward to more public input, but the position I’m in right now is I believe that we as a state would benefit more from shorter transportation, less congestion and less noise with a toll increase.”

Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, added that by creating additional toll revenue – which by law may be spent only on highway construction projects – the price increases would allow more Department of Transportation money to be used to pave local roads and fix red-listed bridges.

“The department (has been) pretty clear that New Hampshire cannot keep up with its infrastructure needs absent additional revenues,” he said.

Volinsky and Prescott said a series of field hearings in recent months convinced them that residents want the renovations to be done quicker, necessitating more revenue. Councilor Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, agreed.

“In Manchester, I heard loud and clear that we need to expedite the construction (around exits 6 and 7),” he said. “It’s a public safety concern.”

But Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, has taken issue with the timing of the proposal, arguing that it should have been pitched earlier than Wednesday, after which all scheduled field hearings had concluded.

The Executive Council is in the midst of nailing down a 10-year plan for the Department of Transportation to recommend to Sununu by the end of the year – a complex process that must necessarily take into account whether the tolls will increase before it can be completed.

Responding to criticism around public transparency, Prescott said he plans to host a hearing on the Seacoast sometime in the coming days.

Wheeler said he disagrees with the rush to complete the projects, as long as they get done on schedule. And he said he opposes the increases on a simple grounds: It would take from the pocketbook of daily commuters.

“This is just too much, too soon,” he said. “People’s incomes haven’t gone up 50 percent.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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