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Vote On Proposed Toll Hike Delayed After Public Hearing

Todd Bookman/NHPR

Several dozen people attended a public hearing Monday evening in Portsmouth to weigh in on a proposed increase in the state’s highway tolls.

A planput forward last month by a transportation advisory commission would raise tolls on average 27-percent statewide, bringing in an additional $36 million in revenue. That includes a 50-cent increase in the cash rate on Interstates 93 and 95, and a 25-cent increase in the tolls on the Spaulding Turnpike. EZPass users would still receive a 30-percent discount.

Supporters of the proposal say that money will be used to accelerate the completion of highway widening and safety projects, and the installation of more sound-abatement barriers.

Peter Somssich, who represents Portsmouth’s Ward 3 in the New Hampshire Legislature, says those sound walls are a priority in his district. He said it’s wrong to label the increase in tolls as a tax increase.

“No, it is called an investment. If you go to Las Vegas, now that’s not an investment. You lose the money, it is gone. You get nothing for it. This is an investment,” he said.

Several Republican state senators, however, as well as members of the trucking industry, criticized the toll increase as bad for New Hampshire’s businesses.

“It just seems like the trucking industry is always taking a hit somewhere, and it is getting harder and harder to be able to absorb all the cost,” said Bill Perez, who works for Pinard Waste Systems.

Many speakers also criticized the process by which the toll plan was introduced, noting it was made public the day before Thanksgiving. There were calls to give the public more opportunity to weigh in on the plan before a final vote by the Executive Council.

That up-or-down decision was placed on this Wednesday’s agenda by Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes the toll increases. Executive Councilor Russ Prescott, a Republican who backs the plan, however, told the Concord Monitor that he would support a delay in the final vote.

Sununu confirmed Tuesday that the item was pulled from the agenda. "Removing this proposal from the agenda will provide Granite Staters the opportunity to make their voices heard," he said in a statement.

There will be two additional public hearings, according to Councilor Andru Volinsky, who supports the toll increase. He says there will be a hearing Dec. 12 in Concord and another one Dec. 13 at Manchester City Hall.

(This article was updated Tuesday morning with Governor Sununu's statement and confirmation that the vote will be delayed.)

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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