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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Highway funding a never-ending battle

State House Bureau

October 26. 2013 7:54PM

Two of the biggest fights last session were over how to pay for highway and bridge construction, rehabilitation and maintenance.

The House Public Works Committee and the House wanted a gas tax hike to pay for the shortfall in the Interstate 93 widening project from Salem to Manchester, as well as the growing red-listed bridges and paving projects.

The House barely approved a 12-cent increase over a three-year period, but the Senate shot it down.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved a casino gambling plan that would have dedicated about 40 percent of the state's revenue to fixing transportation infrastructure and finishing the I-93 project. The House killed that plan.

Now transportation officials are scrambling to find a way to not only continue construction along the I-93 corridor beyond 2015 or 2016, but also along the Spaulding Turnpike in the Little Bay Bridges area.

Both projects have been included in the state's 10-Year Highway Improvement Plan for years, although the funding remains highly questionable.

The I-93 widening is $250 million short; about $40 million will have to be found somewhere for the Spaulding work.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement said as state bonds are paid off, additional money will be available for the Spaulding projects, but that will stall the project meanwhile.

Clement and the Executive Council, as the Governor's Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation, are working to develop recommendations for the 10-year plan.

DOT included about $500 million in turnpike projects that are unfunded without new revenue.

The transportation system is funded basically in three ways: federal highway money, which has been stagnant; gas tax and car registration revenues that go into the highway fund, and tolls that pay for the turnpike system.

Clement said his primary focus is on the highway fund. "I'm agnostic on revenue sources," he said.

"I'm concentrated on providing the best value for the traveling public and New Hampshire taxpayer in the most efficient way possible, but it's been 22 years." The gas tax was last raised in 1992,

In the past, lawmakers instituted an auto registration surcharge that was repealed after a year, sold a bridge to the turnpike system and, last year, tried to raise the gas tax.

The one-time fixes are over, Clement said, and his department faces a $48 million deficit in fiscal 2016 and a $110 million deficit the year after.

All told, the 10-year highway plan contains about $900 million in unfunded projects, including the $500 million in new turnpike projects and the $250 million for the I-93 widening.

"For the sake of transparency, I wanted to put in the turnpike projects that are not funded in the 10-year plan to show the shortfalls," Clement said.

The projects include widening I-93 from the I-89 junction in Bow to Exit 16 in Concord from two to three lanes, costing $194 million; reconstructing and reconfiguring Exits 6 and 7 on I-293 in Manchester, costing $143 million; widening the F.E. Everett Turnpike from Merrimack to Bedford from two to three lanes, at $70 million; reconstructing the Exit 6 interchange, rehabilitating the General Sullivan Bridges and rebuilding toll plazas on the Spaulding Turnpike, $85 million; building open road tolling at the Bedford Toll Plaza on the F.E. Everett Turnpike, for $18.5 million, and a few smaller projects.

There is a cost to stalling the projects because, Clement said, costs escalate every year.

The commission is about to finish its work and turn over its recommendation to Gov. Maggie Hassan, who will decide what she wants to keep in the improvement program. Then it will be up to lawmakers to make recommendations.

House Public Works Committee Chairman David Campbell, D-Nashua, says he does not want to produce a plan that is not funded.

Several terms ago, the 10-year plan was a wish list with projects that would never be completed without additional funding. But lawmakers and transportation officials worked to develop realistic blueprints for the last few two-year cycles.

Campbell said he did not want to return to the days when the plan was a wish list.

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The Dean of the Executive Council, Raymond Burton, R-Bath, hardly ever misses a meeting, and for the Oct. 16 meeting, he participated by phone because he was undergoing additional treatment for cancer.

Burton has served as councilor for most of the northern half of the state for 35 years.

Known for his constituent service, he traveled the highways and byways of northern New Hampshire in one of his restored older model cars, flew into all the airports in his district, walked in uncountable parades and appeared at what must be tens of thousands of events.

Burton, 74, often passed out combs bearing his name when he campaigned.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the District 1 councilor.

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LGC RECOMMENDATIONS: The committee to review a hearings officer's report on the N.H. Local Government Center essentially finalized its report last week and is expected to introduce legislation for 2014 containing some of its key recommendations.

One would ban lawmakers from being executive director of the risk pools that were once under the LGC's umbrella.

Former Senate President and current Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, is the executive director of Health Trust, which oversees LGC's health insurance program.

The committee noted the recommendation should be forward looking and not retroactive.

Another key issue was what entity should regulate public risk pools: current regulator the Bureau of Securities Regulation or the Insurance Department.

The committee recommended the bureau continue overseeing the pools and gave the agency more authority in areas like determining surpluses and how much should be returned to cities, towns and counties that use the trusts' services.

Health Trust officials have maintained those decisions should remain with its board of directors and its actuaries and experts.

The report leaves open the possibility that the bureau be moved to the Insurance Department, where it once was before it was moved to the Secretary of State's Office.

The committee calls for separate boards, with independent resources to hire auditors, etc., and with specific recommendations on who should serve on the board of directors and how they should be chosen.

The committee recommends the separate trusts be barred from commingling money, and that all the trusts buy reinsurance to cover catastrophic events, something the trusts have balked at doing.

The hearings officer ruled in 2012 that the LGC had misspent more than $50 million that should be returned to its customers.

That order is under appeal at the state Supreme Court.

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ARTS AWARDS: The 2013 Governor's Arts Awards will be presented at a ceremony Nov. 6 at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. One of the recipients will be Peter Ramsey, longtime executive director of the Palace Theatre in Manchester.

Ramsey, a Manchester state representative, will share the Special Community Impact Award with Stephen Dignazio, executive director of the Colonial Theatre in Bethlehem.

Other recipients include Brian Chagnon of Farmington, SAU 61 TV studio manager, Arts Education Award; Concord Hospital, Cultural Access Leadership Award; Frumie Selchen of Wonalancet, executive director of the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire, Distinguished Arts Leadership Award; Barbara Fisher of Sunapee, Folk Heritage Award; Thomas and Barbara Putnam of Keene, Individual Arts Patron Award; Marguerite Mathews of the Pontine Theatre in Portsmouth, Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Award; and Pedro Pimentel of Concord High School, Youth Arts Leadership Award.

The Governor's Arts Awards recognize contributions made by individuals, organizations and communities to the cultural life of New Hampshire.

"The arts have long contributed to both New Hampshire's cultural identity and economy," said Gov. Maggie Hassan. "The Governor's Arts Awards are an opportunity to thank members of our arts community for the outstanding work they've done throughout the state."

The event will be held from 5 to 7 p.m.

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