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March 14. 2013 8:15PM

Merrimack toll elimination measure passes Senate

CONCORD - Merrimack residents may see some turnpike toll relief after the Senate Thursday approved a bill eliminating the Exit 12 ramps' tolls.

Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, would have closed all three tolls in Merrimack, but the Senate Ways and Means Committee instead decided to close just the Exit 12 tolls. Revenues from increased traffic from the new Merrimack Premium Outlets mall at Exit 10 more than offsets the loss of revenue from closing the toll, said Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem.

Exit 12 revenues are about $500,000 a year, while there is expected to be a $900,000 increase in revenue at Exit 10.

The elimination of the three tolls would cost the turnpike system approximately $5.5 million a year, according to information from the Department of Transportation.

Bragdon argued it was an issue of fairness. "Drivers in Merrimack pay tolls other drivers who use the turnpike are not burdened with," he said, noting there have been other turnpike projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars such as the widening of the F.E. Everett Turnpike through Nashua and the Manchester airport access road without additional tolls.

"Are we going to have a turnpike system where the users pay for it," Bragdon said, "or are the people of Merrimack going to pay for it.

This is really a fairness issue to me."

But Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, was concerned about the bond rating if the toll were eliminated.

He said any elimination of tolls should be done as part of a review of the entire turnpike system not focus on one particular toll.

The debt service for building the three exits for Merrimack is still outstanding, he noted, and the revenue collected at the three ramp tolls covers the costs of operations and maintenance but does not cover the construction debt.

"The rest of the system is subsidizing Merrimack," D'Allesandro noted. "I want to preserve the integrity of the turnpike system."

Morse and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, backed Bragdon saying many state turnpike and highway projects have been completed and no one is paying for those projects with exit ramp tolls.

Morse said the state has done some ridiculous things such as have the turnpike system buy the Blue Star Turnpike for $110 million and "a liquor store we already own" for $8 million. "And now you want to blame Merrimack?" he said.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to reduce or eliminate the three Merrimack tolls, but all were unsuccessful.

For good measure, the Senate added the provision to eliminate the Exit 12 toll to Senate Bill 19, that would repeal provision in law concerning the sale of the former Lakes Regional Correctional Facility in Laconia. Some key House members sponsored the bill.

SB 3 now goes to the House.


grayno@unionleader.com


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