Senate president tells highway department to 'live within its means'
CONCORD — While state transportation officials say they need more money to fix the state's crumbling highway infrastructure, others say the department needs to better allocate resources instead of asking for more money.
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the state highway fund has been going up and up along with the department's budget. The state's highway fund includes money generated by the gas tax and vehicle registrations, which took in about $225 million a year, although not all the money goes to the Department of Transportation for roads.
Morse said the department needs to live within its means and not ask for more money all the time.
Bob Scully, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, said his group's position has not changed on a gas tax increase — it opposes it.
He noted he has not seen the bill proposed by Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee. Rausch is proposing a gas tax increase of between 4 and 5 cents.
"I have not seen it and I don't know the details," Scully said, "but we have not changed our position on a road toll increase."
He said fuel is the second highest expense for the people he represents. "There is a lot of economic pressure on our folks," he said, "and there's a lot of concern and uncertainty over all the health care (reforms)."
Appearing before the House Public Works and Highways Committee Tuesday, Department of Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement said without additional funding for the 2016 fiscal year, his department will have to close 20 of 89 highway sheds, along with one of the six district offices.
The roads will be covered with snow longer and employees will be laid off, he warned.
Facing a yearly $20 million deficit in the state highway fund that has been offset by one-time money, Clements said the problem is coming home to roost beginning in fiscal year 2016.
The problems stem from the loss of one-time money leaving the department with a projected deficit of $48 million for the 2016 fiscal year, and $105 million deficit for 2017.
Clement said his department is falling further and further behind fixing red-listed bridges and paving the state's roads. "We've been doing less with less," Clement said.
Morse opposes a gas tax increase and instead proposed that about 40 percent of state revenue from a casino go to the state's highways including finishing the I-93 expansion project. The casino bill, Senate Bill 152, passed the Senate but was killed by the House last session, while the Senate killed the gas tax increase that the House approved.
Morse has said he would not support Rausch's bill, but would not block its introduction into the Senate.
A gas tax increase "hurts the people who can least afford it," Morse said.
Clement also told the committee the I-93 expansion project from Salem to Manchester will come to a halt in October 2016 unless an additional $250 million is found.
Scully noted the expansion project goes through Morse's Senate district. "I wonder the wisdom of telling the world you're going to stop construction of I-93 when it goes through the Senate President's district?" he said.
The department needs to dig deep and decide how many people it needs to perform their jobs, Scully added.
"The clear message from Sen. Morse is the department needs to learn to live within it means," Scully said. "I'm surprised the issue came back as quickly as it did. In an election year, some officials are going to be uncomfortable having a major tax issue surface."
The last I-93 expansion construction contract paid by authorized funding was approved by the Executive Council Wednesday.