Editorial: Increase in tolls warranted

Sunday, December 03, 2017

In folklore, trolls lived under bridges and demanded tribute. Travelers who didn’t pay up were eaten.

The members of the commission charged with advising New Hampshire’s governor about transportation policy aren’t proposing anything quite so severe, but they do want to increase tolls on the state’s highways by 50 percent. With more than 150 bridges on the state’s red list, nearly one-third of all roads in poor shape and Interstate 93 a parking lot at peak travel times, the Executive Council should give the proposal a thumbs up when it votes this week.

It’s been a decade since tolls were last raised. According to the commission’s report, they are 70 percent below the national average. It costs $7.75, for example, to traverse the length of the Massachusetts Turnpike and $7 to do the same in Maine. Taking a bridge or tunnel into New York City costs 15 bucks. But the toll to travel on most of New Hampshire’s turnpike system is $1 or less and $2 from Hampton to the Massachusetts border. The average cost per mile to use the state’s roads is 6.2 cents compared to a national average of 20.7 cents.

The additional $36 million the toll increase would bring in annually would allow system improvements to be made sooner and free up revenue to repair or replace state roads and bridges. In classic New Hampshire fashion tourists would pick up more than half the cost of the toll increases. Residents and commuters would, if lawmakers approve, receive discounts and exemptions that would take a bit of the sting out of the increase.

The added toll revenue, the advisory commission calculated, would speed up projects like the reconstruction of crash-prone Exits 6 and 7 in Manchester by six years. It would also move up by several years the timetable on the addition of an extra lane in either direction on I-93 from Bow to Exit 15 in Concord to reduce the congestion that slows traffic to a crawl when visitors head south on Sunday.

The commission found that, on average, travelers suffered a 15-minute delay on just one 10-mile stretch of I-93 during peak travel times. That translates into a $5.36 per person cost that adds up quickly. Collectively, delays on Fridays alone result in an economic loss of $1.6 million per year. The delays also damage the state’s tourist economy by making it more likely that potential visitors will stay home or travel elsewhere.

Decades of studies prove that widening highways and adding lanes seldom reduces congestion for long or even at all because more drivers decide to use the improved highway. For a state dependent on tourism, however, more cars clogging wider highways may be a good problem to have since it means more money flowing into New Hampshire.

New Hampshire’s infrastructure, like that of the nation, has been neglected. On the current fix or replace timetable, the state will never catch up. An increase in tolls is warranted.