CONCORD — Although the key State House players deny it, drivers who use Exit 12 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Merrimack may have been unwittingly caught in a tug of war between the New Hampshire House and Senate.
And as a result, they will have to keep paying the 50-cents toll at Exit 12, at least until sometime next year.
After the state Senate killed Nashua Democratic Rep. David Campbell's proposed 12-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike bill last week, the House Public Works and Highways Committee, chaired by Campbell, voted 12-2 Wednesday to retain in committee for this session Senate President Peter Bragdon's bill to eliminate the toll at Exit 12 on the turnpike.
While the Senate action ensured the gas tax hike cannot return for consideration this year and would require Bragdon's approval to return next year, the House committee action did not go that far. It does not prevent the tollbooth issue from reemerging in another form on another bill later in this session — if the Bragdon-led Senate chooses to do so.
Bragdon, a Milford Republican whose district includes Merrimack, said, however, the House committee move was "not unexpected." He said he has no intention of trying to resurrect the issue this year.
Campbell had initially brought up the possibility of retaining the bill at the public hearing earlier this month, two weeks before last week's controversial votes by the House killing casino gambling and by the Senate killing the gas tax hike.
Campbell did not change his plan after the gas tax hike he and his committee championed died, despite some sentiment on his committee to kill the toll bill outright.
The committee decided to keep the bill in committee and study "global" issues related to the Everett and other turnpikes, tolls and widening, and issue a report under House rules by Nov. 22.
Campbell explained that the Senate vote to indefinitely postpone the gas tax hike bill meant that the issue can not be taken up by the Senate again this year and it would be "futile" for the House to try to raise the issue again.
"If we did it, it would only be a political gesture and not a true legislative action in good faith," Campbell said.
He said the future of the other Merrimack tolls, the current ability of motorists to avoid the Bedford toll by using the Manchester airport access road and possible widening of the turnpike should be among the issues studied.
"The committee worked very hard on (the gas tax hike bill), not only on the bill itself but in the preparation for it, in understanding the problem with our roads and bridges," Campbell said. "There's understandable disappointment but I think the committee acted responsibly."
Bragdon last year had campaigned and won a contested race in his newly redrawn Senate district that included Merrimack for the first time in part by calling for elimination of what he called an unfair toll burden borne by residents of Merrimack.
His original bill called for elimination of all three tolls in that community — at exits 10, 11 and 12. But the Senate Ways and Means Committee decided to eliminate only the Exit 12 toll and the full Senate agreed.
Transportation officials said revenues from increased traffic to and from the new Merrimack Premium Outlets mall at Exit 10 more than offsets the loss of revenue from closing the Exit 12 toll.
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 have cost the turnpike system approximately $5.5 million a year, according to the Department of Transportation.