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Pro and Con Perspectives: The Debate Over N.H. Toll Hikes

Ty Without Numbers via Flickr CC

Governor Sununu's Advisory Commission on Transportation will vote Dec. 20 on whether to increase tolls statewide.

The proposal is to increase toll rates by an average of 27 percent, which the Department of Transportation says would raise an estimated $36 million dollars annually for infrastructure improvements.

Supporters are saying the plan will improve roads faster, while critics are calling it another tax.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Greg Moore, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, about why he opposes the increase.

All Things Considered Host Peter Biello spoke with Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky on why he supports the toll increase.

Interview with AFP's Greg Moore:

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

What about this proposal do you disagree with? Why would this increase be a bad thing for New Hampshire residents?

Fundamentally, this puts a lot of pressure particularly on the people who are at the low end of the income scale. It’s a significant increase particularly in the two heavy commuter tolls, which are in Hooksett and Bedford. Those tolls there -  only a little over a third of the people are out of state. The heavy out of state usage is in New Hampton toll plaza.

I happen to live just near the Bedford tolls, and that’s a very easy-to-avoid toll with the Wieczorek connector where people can hop off and on. And I see the faces of people in those cars driving by. It’s frequently young families, young people in cars that are almost as old as they are, contractors in old trucks. Those are people who feel the need to avoid it. So that’s the people who you can tell are being impacted substantially.

So you feel this is going to substantially hurt those who would use the tolls most often, commuters and New Hampshire residents that need to go through it daily?

Absolutely, and the better solution for infrastructure spending is similar to what the governor and the legislature did this year. Because we had a boom economy that frequently means more traffic on the roads, because our economy’s doing better. And that’s a good thing. So this past year in the budget, the governor and the legislature took $36 million, and took it out of the surplus because of the strong economy, and took those dollars and put them into transportation spending and infrastructure spending. That’s a better solution over the long term, because while you want to grow your infrastructure while your economy is booming, there will be another economic downtown. But if those tolls go up, that’s when it’s really going to have an impact, particularly on the least fortunate.

What do you say to those who would say, 'Look we haven’t had a toll increase in a decade? We’ve got infrastructure projects. We’ve got red-listed bridges. We need the money.'

Actually, spending on infrastructure has increased dramatically, substantially since 2007 when we last increased tolls. Those toll increases were substantial, and they actually were part of a two series toll increase. Not only did we actually raise the toll rates, but we also took away the tokens for those folks who lived in New Hampshire at the time who used to get a 50 percent discount on your tokens. So that disappeared as well.

There is a discount for E-ZPass users.

Not as great a discount.

It’s a 30 percent discount now.

It’s a much smaller discount, and even less for commercial vehicles, and it’s a substantial impact. The cost increases don’t just fall upon the people who pay the tolls. They also fall upon the consumers, because all the commercial [trucks] that come into New Hampshire that brings the goods to our retailers have to pay the tolls as well. And those costs are passed along to the consumers in terms of higher prices.

So it’s not just the toll payers who are paying the costs of these increases. And again the focus should really be on when we’re trying to grow our infrastructure in a boom economy, like thankfully we are in at the moment, let’s use dollars that are coming in from that boom economy to use a one-time expenditure so we’re not left with a long term obligation, which is really going to hammer the least fortunate in the years to come when our economy isn’t so strong.

But tolls in New Hampshire are relatively much less than other states, in the northeast particularly. I mean, I’m thinking of course of New Jersey and New York, but even through Boston and so on. The toll structure there is much higher. Can you make the case that New Hampshire still competitive even with this toll increase?

Well our roads and bridges in the Northeast are considered among the best. We have some of the best bridges and roadways, and if you’ve ever driven to Massachusetts you know exactly what I mean. Driving down route 93, I sometimes feel like the place has taken heavy artillery fire.

But conditions aside, what I’m saying is the toll rates in these other states are much higher.

Sure, and I think it’s great. We should always have an advantage. We should always welcome an advantage we have over other states. It’s something that makes us a competitively better place to do business, a competitively better place to live. It’s something that each and every one of us should embrace on a regular basis. And having a lower toll structure is just one more selling point that we can use as a place to base or house your business, and as a cost businesses won’t have to pay if they’re based here, which of course means additional jobs, and hopefully better jobs.

Are there projects that you would like to see scratched off the docket in the state that would make maybe this toll increase unnecessary?

The poster child for this is a $32 million expenditure for a pedestrian and bicycle walkway on the General Sullivan bridge between Newington and Dover. That obviously is not going to help reduce any traffic or congestion in the Seacoast area where there is a problem, a substantial problem, and yet instead of actually looking to widen that bridge, which is a bottle neck for a lot of people during commuter hours, they’re instead looking to take an old, defunct bridge, which frankly is rotting in place, and bring it up to standard, which frankly should be demolished or at least blocked off. Because at the end of the day, it’s not a good investment of toll payers’ money or of drivers’ money.

Instead we should be looking for better projects where we get more bang for the buck that actually deliver better services and actually focus on actually reducing commute times. And these would be good projects -for example when we start to see the $36 million that was spent last year. Let’s look for projects like that in the future. Let’s make a one-time investment to solve it while we have a strong economy. Those are good uses of one-time funds.

Interview with Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky:

NHPR's Peter Biello speaks with Executive Counselor Andru Volinsky.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for broadcast.)

So why is right now the right time to raise tolls?

I think there’s a long standing need. The time to have raised tolls and to have addressed the need for fixing bridges, fixing roads, doing the economic development, creating jobs, all of that has existed for eight [to] 10 years. And it’s just there’s not been the political will to deal with it. And through a coincidence of events, we have three votes on the council. Three of us are willing to take the political heat that’s coming, and address the state’s needs in a respectful, responsible way.

No one, I don’t think, is going to argue with the fact that New Hampshire roads certainly need the help. Why is raising rates on tolls the best way to pay for those repairs?

Well, it’s not the best way. There are better ways through more equitable, fair, generalized raising of revenues. But tolls are the only lever that the executive council can use to address the problem. And so others have passed the buck over and over again, and three of us are unwilling to pass the buck. We’re going to stand up and address the needs with the only tool we have, which is the setting of toll rates.

So you have attended a few of these public hearings that have given ordinary folks a chance to weigh in on the proposed toll rate hike. What have those been like?

It sounds a little trite to say that you know it’s refreshing my faith in humanity, but the conduct of these hearings – I chaired the meeting in Portsmouth and the one in Concord – and 70-80 people spoke between the two.  And everyone was really respectful, maybe with the exception of a couple of politicians. They make their arguments. They are straightforward.

Afterwards, some of the strongest opponents to toll increases come up to me and thank me for having the hearing, thank me for listening. They’re very cordial, appropriate conversations about an issues that I understand hit some people right at their bottom line, and I’m respectful of that. And I really appreciate the motor transport people who come out and tell me why this is a bad idea from their business perspective.

In turn, I ask them to consider the fact that they just got two large, state business tax cuts in each of the last two legislative sessions. And so, we gave them some benefit as businesses in that regard, or the legislature did. I think it deprived the state of revenues that people need. But put that aside, look at it in context. You need the roads fixed. You need the delays removed. You need things smoothed out. You need safe bridges to operate your trucks. Someone has to pay for this, and it’s been 10 years since we’ve had a statewide toll increase. This one is modest. I understand it will hurt some people, but it’s necessary.

What do you say to those people who talk about their bottom lines – not the business people, but the average people who, you know, maybe they live in Concord, but they work in Manchester, or vice versa, and they have to pass through those tolls every day? What do you say to those people?

Listen, I do the same thing. I still practice law, and my law office is in the Millyard in Manchester. So I drive through the toll booth at Hooksett. I understand the concern they have. The other side of that is that I get stuck in the Friday afternoon traffic coming back to Concord, and the Sunday evening traffic. I think we can do some things about that six, seven years sooner with the toll increase.

The other thing is if you have a New Hampshire E-ZPass transponder, you get a 30 percent discount on the toll increase. And we’re suggesting to the legislature that they adopt a commuter discount for people who regularly pass through tolls. So the Department of Transportation tells me that over 50 percent – I think it’s 54-55 percent – of the tolls are paid for by the out of state transponders. So I understand the burden, but we’re trying to mitigate it as best we can.

Other states have much higher tolls. Anyone who’s been on I-95 in Maine will know that. Why are tolls relatively low here, and why have they been relatively low for so long?

I think it’s because legislatures have been willing to starve the state of needed funds for maintenance of roads and bridges. So we’re 6.2 cents per mile is how you figure out where your tolls stand comparatively. Six point two cents per mile puts us 70 percent below the average toll rate in the country. And so people can say you shouldn’t compare us to New York, and Illinois and California. We are hugely less than Maine and Massachusetts, our neighbors. So there’s room. And our gas tax is also less than any other state in New England. Those are the two primary sources for the road maintenance repair, bridge maintenance repair. 

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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