The Cost of Accelerating NH Road Projects
UPDATE 1/5/2018: Shortly after we first published this post, the draft Ten Year Plan was submitted to Governor Sununu by GACIT. That draft included the toll increase that funded Turnpike project acceleration, it was supported by 3 out of the 5 Executive Councilors.
In a press release, on December 22nd, 2017 Sununu stated, “I have long been opposed to toll increases. After hearing from citizens across the state, reviewing feedback from the public comment sessions, and conferring with members of the Executive Council … 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. As such, I will not allow this toll increase to move forward…”
The discussion around this proposal highlighted ongoing concerns and priorities of the Department of Transportation, the public, and the Executive Councilors.
At its November meeting, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation (GACIT) proposed increasing New Hampshire highway tolls to accelerate transportation infrastructure projects throughout the state. The need for additional funding for these projects was raised during public hearings on projects selected for the state’s Ten Year Plan for 2019–2028. Key concerns discussed at the hearings included project timelines, the deteriorating condition of the state’s structurally deficient Red List bridges, I-93 expansion between Bow and Concord, and the need for soundwalls along turnpikes and interstates. GACIT held a public meeting in Portsmouth on Dec. 4 to review the toll rate proposal and hear comments from the public on the proposed changes.
Overview of Proposal
At the December public meeting, NHDOT Deputy Commissioner Christopher M. Waszczuk explained that turnpike revenue pays for operation and maintenance costs, debt service on the $401 million of outstanding bonds, the Renewal & Rehabilitation (TRR) program, and capital improvements made to the system. The additional $36 million raised each year by increasing the tolls would be used to accelerate capital work on the turnpike system, including three major turnpike projects to improve capacity, safety, and traffic flow.
Supporters of the proposed toll increase agreed it would help accelerate necessary capital projects, improve safety, and increase economic viability and vitality by improving infrastructure. Julie Chizmas, Nashua’s transportation and long-range planner, discussed one such project, the widening of 1.5 miles of I-93 in Concord, from Exit 14 to the northern end of the I-93 bridges over the Merrimack River (just south of Exit 16). She said the need for this project has grown since its proposal in 2005. The current configuration, which goes from three to two lanes, creates significant delays and accidents, which will only get worse as the number of drivers increases.
This expansion of the turnpike system, it was noted at the meeting, would free $180 million in future federal funds, along with $32 million currently dedicated to Merrimack River bridges, to be used for other projects across New Hampshire.
Kyle Fox, Merrimack’s public works director, also supported the acceleration and expansion program, which would benefit the F. E. Everett Turnpike widening project in Merrimack and the removal of tollbooths at Exits 10 and 11. He said increasing congestion at these exits, which can lead to accidents and major delays, is a major concern.
Many Portsmouth residents also spoke in support of the toll increase, citing the need for a soundwall program to reduce the effects of traffic noise from I-95 on the community. They urged council members and the public to think of the increase as an investment, not a tax.
Numerous letters of support were also submitted by residents, city managers, transit operators, and private businesses. These letters mirrored the support voiced at the meeting and cited the negative impacts of project delays, the economic impacts of insufficient infrastructure, and the necessity to increase safety.
Concerns about process and about the proposed toll increases’ impact on New Hampshire drivers were also raised at the public meeting.
Many critics said the speed and timing of the proposal did not allow sufficient debate and public input. State Senate President Chuck Morse said there was no debate about the toll increase, and he urged the council to slow down the process and give the public time to comment. State Senator Andy Sanborn (District 9) noted that while it is important to keep people safe through good roads and infrastructure, he, too, was concerned about the manner in which the proposal was presented. State Senator Regina Birdsell (District 19) had no position on the merits of the proposal, but said the process lacked transparency and more time was needed to receive input from constituents around the state.
Another concern many attendees raised was the toll’s economic impact on New Hampshire residents. Discussing the downside of the increase, State Senator Kevin Avard (District 12) cited the negative impact it would have on working people who commute daily on toll roads.
Owners of businesses that operate commercial vehicles also voiced their concerns over the increased tolls. Many said they may not be able to absorb the extra costs. Higher tolls will pose additional challenges for the state’s small trucking industry as it struggles to compete with larger companies that can absorb the increased costs, they said.
Following three public hearings, GACIT will take into consideration the public input it received and will determine if and when a toll increase proposal will be made to the Governor and the Executive Council for their consideration. The public input it received may also determine GACIT’s direction to NHDOT.