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October 23. 2013 8:36PM

Merrimack ramp tolls will stay

CONCORD — Merrimack residents' hope for some relief from the F.E. Everett Turnpike ramp tolls was dashed Wednesday by a key House committee.

The House Public Works and Highways Committee voted 15-0 to recommend killing Senate Bill 3, which would have eliminated the exit 12 ramp tolls.

Merrimack residents have long complained they are the only community along the state's turnpike system with three tolls to enter or leave the turnpike, and long sought to have them removed.

However, state transportation officials and lawmakers say an agreement was originally struck to add the three exits in Merrimack in return for the toll revenue to pay off the bonds to pay for the project.

Sponsored by former Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, SB 3 originally would have eliminated the three Merrimack ramp tolls, but was changed to just the exit 12 ramp before the Senate approved it. The Public Works Committee retained the bill.

Exit 12 toll revenues total about $900,000 a year for the turnpike system.

Committee chair David Campbell, D-Nashua, said the state's 10-year highway improvement plan would be the best way to deal with the issue. Lawmakers will work on the plan next session.

"Closing ramp tolls individually is not a good policy," Campbell told the committee.

He said the F.E. Everett Turnpike expansion project, as well as the $2 million a year diversion from the Bedford toll plaza revenue after the opening of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport access road, need to be part of the picture.

Since the airport access road opened, traffic through the Bedford tolls has dropped by about 1.6 million vehicles a year, according to information from the Department of Transportation.

Some drivers take the airport access road exit to avoid the Bedford toll by going through the clover leaf ramps, according to Campbell, noting the department said the total diversion could grow to $5 million a year.

The airport access road is before the Bedford toll plaza for northbound travelers. Transportation officials have discussed moving the plaza south to pick up the access road traffic when the plaza is rebuilt to accommodate high-speed tolling.

But the state's 10-year highway plan does not fund the new plaza at this time.

Lawmakers will review the new 10-year plan after the Governor's Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation makes it recommendations and send them to Gov. Maggie Hassan, who will in turn make her recommendations before sending it to lawmakers.

At yesterday's meeting, Public Works Committee member Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford, said any reduction in ramp tolls have to be part of an overall turnpike plan including where the Bedford toll plaza should be located to address the diversion. In that context, then lawmakers could talk about eliminating tolls, he said.

"In Merrimack we think we got the short end of the stick," said Rep. Richard Barry, R-Merrimack, a sponsor of the bill. "But I agree you have to look at the total turnpike system, the diversion and where the money is going."

The committee's recommendation to kill SB 3 will come before the House during the first three session days of the 2014 Legislature.

grayno@unionleader.com


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