Wider I-293 may have to wait without more toll revenue
By BILL SMITH
New Hampshire Union Leader
MANCHESTER — Without more money from tolls, the proposed widening of Interstate 293 and reconstruction of two major interchanges may have to wait until other state turnpike projects are paid off before planning work turns into actual construction.
Improvements to the road from near Exit 5 through exits 6 and 7 must be paid by state turnpike toll collections, since that stretch of road is part of the F. E. Everett Turnpike.
Tolls are also paying for ongoing work at Exit 4, where a major traffic detour is in effect. Planned work on utility and drainage lines requires closing the northbound entrance to the highway at Exit 4 through Dec. 11. Motorists who usually head north from Exit 4 can head north on Second Street and use northbound Exit 5 at Granite Street.
"Toll revenue pays for operations and maintenance on the system, for any renewal and rehabilitation on the system and pays for debt service on construction bonds," said Chris Waszczuk, administrator of the state Bureau of Turnpikes. "All the revenue generated on the system is used on the system."
The I-293 plan includes several alternatives to make the road three lanes in each direction and rebuild two congested interchanges.
But the turnpike's revenues are already going to pay off projects which have been finished or are already underway.
State Department of Transportation planners say right now there is no money for work.
"In order to accommodate construction for that project and the right-of-way acquisitions, we would not have sufficient funds in order to accommodate construction," said Keith Coda, state Department of Transportation project director. "In order to bring it forward in a timely manner, it would require some type of a revenue stream."
Toll booth talk
Since I-293 is part of the turnpike, the revenue stream would have to come from tolls. The options are to raise tolls, extend the portion of the turnpike on which tolls are collected, or simply wait for other projects to be paid off.
Erecting toll booths in Manchester has been opposed in the past, most recently when the idea was floated as a way to make up $2 million in annual toll revenue lost when the access road to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport opened.
A suggestion that the existing toll roads on the Hooksett-to-Concord segment be stretched to the south was opposed by city officials. Charging motorists a toll on I-293 is also seen as likely to create congestion to pay for work intended to reduce congestion.
"It just isn't feasible, engineering-wise," said state Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. "It's not practical to just throw up a toll booth."
Campbell has been a supporter of increased funding for state highways and sponsored a proposal to raise the state gasoline tax; the bill passed the House earlier this year, but was killed in the Senate.
Campbell's committee gets an update today on the status of planned work by the turnpike on its 93 miles of road and by the DOT for the rest of the state road system.
On Wednesday, the Executive Council is expected to take up the biennial revision of the state's 10-year transportation plan. The council's version goes to the governor, who will make her own recommendation.
A public session on the I-293 project is set for Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at Manchester City Hall.
Any increase in turnpike tolls to pay for work in Manchester would have to be approved by the council.
District 4 Councilor Chris Pappas, a Democrat who represents Manchester, said it's early for talk of changing the toll structure.
"I haven't taken a position on that yet; we're at the phase now where we're identifying the important transportation priorities for this region," Pappas said. "Redoing exits 6 and 7 are a priority for this region; my job is to make sure we get that right when we submit a ten-year plan to the governor."
Existing toll collections won't be available for use on I-293 for about a dozen years, when many existing bonds are paid off. Engineers designed the I-293 alternatives with a 20-year life span in mind.
But Coda said while congestion can be expected to increase over the next decade, current proposals would still be viable in the future.
"The solutions that are coming forward out of the (I-293) study would still be valid," Coda said. "The problem would be if there was a substantial long-term delay, say 20 years. The traffic level would be different from that that was studied, and there may be pressure to go beyond six lanes."
Another alternative is to configure any toll increases to minimize the impact on New Hampshire residents, especially frequent turnpike users.
"We could get creative with the (E-ZPass) discount, we could make sure commuters that use the system often and have a New Hampshire transponder don't bear as big a burden," Pappas said. "Those are discussions that have to happen."
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