Sununu says he won't allow proposed toll hike to move ahead

  • Gov. Chris Sununu AP

For the Monitor
Thursday, December 21, 2017

Gov. Chris Sununu is killing a proposal to raise the price of tolls on New Hampshire’s highways.

“I will not allow this toll increase to move forward,” the first term Republican governor said Thursday in a statement. “I was sent to Concord to fight for the working men and women of New Hampshire, and that is what I am doing.”

Sununu announced the news in an email titled “No Coal or Tolls in Christmas Stockings.”

The move came one day after the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Transportation signed off on changes to the state’s 10-year transportation plan. That plan included projected revenues of $36 million from the proposed toll hike. The vote by the commission, which is made up of the five-member Executive Council and the Transportation Department commissioner, greenlighted a separate vote by the Council next month on the toll increase. That vote could have taken place as early as January 10.

But since the governor controls the Council’s agenda, he has the power to keep it off the table.

Just a day earlier Sununu indicated he would let the council vote.

“If the councilors want me to put it on the agenda, I’ll put it on the agenda,” he declared to reporters

A vote on the toll hike was expected to pass, with Democrats Chris Pappas and AndruVolinsky in support, along with Republican Russell Prescott. Republicans David Wheeler and Joe Kenney opposed the toll increase proposal.

In his statement Thursday, the governor said “after hearing from citizens across the state, reviewing feedback from the public comment sessions, and conferring with members of the Executive Council following yesterday’s final GACIT hearing, my position has not changed. Had the Council ultimately voted in favor of toll increases, I would have negated their vote. Dragging this process out is not productive.”

The toll increase was vocally opposed by many top Republicans. Kenney said he was glad the governor pulled the increase off the Council’s agenda, but suspected Sununu got a lot of pressure from a lot of different groups to not increase the tolls and not to leave in the Executive Council’s hands.”

The proposal would have hiked rates from $1 to $1.50 at the Hooksett and Bedford toll plazas, and from $2 to $2.50 at the Hampton toll plaza. The rates at the toll plazas in Dover and Rochester would have jumped from 75 cents to $1. Public hearings on the toll hike were recently held in Concord, Manchester, and Portsmouth

Volinsky told the Monitor he was “obviously disappointed.”

“We were able to develop a careful plan that shows how an investment of $37 million would make a huge difference in our state. And that plan exists,” Volinsky said. “And if the governor had come out early, we wouldn’t have done the work on the plan. And we wouldn’t have shown people where we can make a difference.”

Even though the plan was put together by the Department of Transportation this autumn at the request of Prescott, the Kingston Republican who succeeded Sununu on the council, the hikes were opposed by most of the GOP leadership in the State House.

Sununu’s move to scuttle the toll hikes won him praise within his party.

“I thank Governor Sununu and the Executive Council for adding more public debate on the last minute idea of increasing tolls and for protecting working families in New Hampshire by removing the proposal for toll increases from the agenda,” State Senate President Chuck Morse said in a statement. 

“Congratulations to the governor,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley told the Monitor. “He’s listened to hard working people who have to commute every day on New Hampshire roads and would have had some significant toll increases.”

“I applaud the Governor’s leadership on this issue, and agree with his decision that now is not the time to ask our motorists to pay more at the tolls,” House Speaker Gene Chandler said. “This process has been rushed, and we need more time to evaluate what projects need to be done and what projects can be done with existing resources.”

The Council has authority over raising the price of tolls, while the state legislature gets the final say over which highway projects are funded in the state’s transportation plan.

But Volinsky remained optimistic that “pieces of the plan that we developed will show up in the legislative process and maybe they’ll be an opportunity where the governor comes back to us and raises the toll issue with us to fund portions of the plan we developed.”

The toll hikes would have been the first in a decade. Supporters said the revenue brought in by the toll increases would accelerate reconstruction and expansion projects along I-93 in Concord, 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 a report from the Department of Transportation.