Executive Council expected to vote Wednesday on proposed toll hike

  • A sign on Northbound lane of Interstate 93 warns of the approaching Hooksett tolls. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Friday, December 01, 2017

New Hampshire’s five-member Executive Council is expected to vote Wednesday on a proposal to raise the price of tolls on the state’s highways for the first time in a decade.

The move puts council newcomer, Republican Russell Prescott, on the political hot seat as he faces push back from some of the top conservative groups in the state.

Prescott, who replaced Republican Chris Sununu on the council when he became governor, requested New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation produce a report with the proposed toll increases.

Wednesday’s showdown on the toll hike proposal, posted Friday on the Executive Council’s website and confirmed by the governor’s office, will come two days after a public hearing on the toll proposal will be held Monday night in Portsmouth.

“I think openness and transparency is the best way to find out the true pulse of where we should go as a state,” he said Friday in an interview with the Monitor. “Not one person making the decision or five people making the decisions.”

If approved, the tolls would increase by 50-cents for most vehicles (from $1 to $1.50) at the Interstate 93 toll in Hooksett and the Everett Turnpike toll in Bedford, with a 50 cent hike at the I-95 toll in Hampton (from $2 to $2.50) starting March 1, 2018.

The current tolls at the I-93 Hooksett exit ramp, the I-95 exit ramp to Route 101, and the Dover and Rochester plazas on the Spaulding Turnpike, would jump 25 cents.

Drivers with New Hampshire E-ZPass transponders in their vehicles would see a 35-cent increase at the tolls that are rising by 50-cents and an 18-cent increase at the tolls that would rise by 25 cents.

The revenue brought in by the toll increases would accelerate construction projects along I-93 in Concord to reduce congestion, I-293 in Manchester, and along highways in the Seacoast. The money would also fund new projects, and eliminate the exit ramp tolls along the Everett Turnpike in Merrimack, according to the transportation department report.

The Executive Council, not the legislature, has oversight of toll increases. Next week’s vote was greenlighted by Gov. Sununu, who controls the council’s agenda.

The state’s Republican governor, who served six years on the council, said he opposes the toll increase but wants the council to have the ability to consider the issue.

“I respect the council’s chartered responsibilities,” he said. “Only in extreme circumstances do I believe that interfering with that process would be warranted.”

Sununu could have effectively vetoed the toll increase by keeping the vote off the council’s agenda. The toll increases, which can only be spent on the state’s highways, are spelled out in the DOT report, which was issued last week.

Prescott said he requested the transportation department report after holding five public hearings in his district, which covers much of Rockingham Country. He said the need to repair the state’s highways and bridges “is greater than the amount of money we have to fix our problems in our inter-modal system.”

Prescott pointed out that the DOT’s report found that 55 percent of highway tolls collected last year came from out-of-state drivers. And he said that the toll hike plan also gives in-state drivers with N.H. issued E-ZPasses 10 free trips per month after the first 40 times they pass through tolls.

Prescott said it was a responsible thing for him to propose raising the tolls. And while he supports the plan right now, Monday’s meeting where the public will weigh in on the hikes will be a major factor when it comes to his vote next week.

“I think the most important part of my decision making is the next public hearing, because it’s specifically on the proposal. Do we raise the tax, do we raise the toll, or not?” he said.

The council’s two Democrats – Chris Pappas and Andru Volinsky – also support the toll hike proposal. Prescott’s fellow Republicans on the council, David Wheeler and Joe Kenney, are expected to vote against the toll increase.

Prescott, who served for years in the state Senate representing Exeter and Kingston before winning election to the council last year, has generally supported lower taxes and limited government.

But his backing of the toll increase is irking conservatives.

The New Hampshire chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group that pushes for lower taxes and less regulation, Friday launched digital ads over the issue in Prescott’s district.

The spots, running on social media platforms, target people who have specifically identified as those who oppose tax increases.

“The goal is to have the councilor hear from his constituents directly, talking about how toll increases will impact them and their lives and in addition to that drive up the costs of goods and services that come into New Hampshire,” Greg Moore, the AFP state director, told the Monitor.

Prescott’s support of the toll increase follows his recent high profile vote in favor of continuing a state contract with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which was strongly opposed by conservatives.

“When I became an executive councilor, I knew the role of the Executive Council. And that is to do what is expedient and what is economical. And those things are what I always look at when looking at the 10-year (highway) plan or looking at contracts,” Prescott explained.

“The policy of the state, led by the legislature, is to set money aside for family planning. I voted for the contract and I did it in an expeditious way, the most economical way. I made sure I watched the wallet of the state and that’s my vote,” he added.

Prescott’s stance may invite a primary challenge from a more conservative member of the Republican party.

Diane Bitter, part of the leadership of the 603 Alliance, a well-known conservative group in the state, told the Monitor that the alliance “is looking to primary challenge incumbents who have not been following the principles of the Republican Party.” The political action committee supporting the New Hampshire Motor Transportation Association may also look for someone to challenge Prescott if the toll increase goes into effect.

Prescott told the Monitor that he is definitely considering running for re-election and unfazed by a primary challenge.

“I would enjoy all of that, because when have the public involved, we get the best way we can move the state forward,” he said.

But Prescott lamented that the council was becoming so politicized.

“The Executive Council should look through the lens of what is expedient, what is most economic, and make sure everything is done on the up and up,” he said.