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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Trying to solve road money puzzle

December 07. 2013 6:43PM
12/07/13 Commander Anthony Foote, faces his soldiers, during the freedom ceremony for the 169th Medevac Detachment, of the NH Army National Guard, for their deployment to Afghanistan, held at the Army Aviation Support Facility, on Saturday, in Concord. Thomas Roy/Union Leader 

The state's transportation system might need more money, but how much and how to raise it are where the conflicts come.

Last week, the State House heard about financial inadequacies, roads and bridges at risk, etc. The Governor's Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation finalized its work on a $3.5 billion, 10-year highway improvement plan that included more than $1 billion in projects that are not funded and won't be without a toll or gas tax increase.

One project is the last phase of the Salem-to-Manchester Interstate 93 expansion. "This is a very fiscally constrained plan," said commission Chairman and District 5 Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua. "The DOT did the best they could with the funding available."

A day earlier, Department of Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement told the House Public Works and Highways Committee that "without additional funding for fiscal 2016, the agency will have to close 20 of its 89 highway sheds and one of the six district offices.

"The roads will be snow-covered longer, and up to 700 employees will be laid off," he cautioned.

Facing a yearly $20 million deficit in the state highway fund, Clement said the problem will come home to roost beginning in fiscal year 2016. Clement said his department is falling further behind in fixing red-listed bridges and paving the state's roads.

"We've been doing less with less," Clement said.

Later, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Rausch, R-Derry, outlined legislation that would tie a gas tax increase to a formula using the consumer price index to account for inflation and "restore the purchasing power that has been eroded since the last tax increase, in 1991."

The effect would be a little more than a 4 cent increase in the gas tax, beginning next year. It would raise about $30 million annually. Add a proposal to use 45 percent of revenue from casino gambling to fix roads and bridges and finish the I-93 expansion project, and you have a three-ring circus to rival the Medicaid expansion big top that just left town.

In the center ring is Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, who until four months ago was Finance Committee chair and co-sponsor of SB 152 to legalize a casino in the southern tier of the state - read Salem.

Highway projects are paid for through the state highway fund, which includes gas tax and vehicle registration money. While the fund took a real hit beginning in 2008 with the Great Recession, it is rebounding, producing more revenue. The additional money does not solve the problem, but does put off the major catastrophes until the next biennium, not this one.

So when Clement painted his bleak picture of highway infrastructure, Morse, who opposes a gas tax increase and wants to turn up the heat on the casino issue, was none too happy. He said the department should learn to live within its means. He said all he ever hears from Clement is "more money, more money and more money."Clement has said he wants to be transparent about the condition of the state highway system so people understand what needs to be done. He also said construction on the I-93 expansion project would stop after October 2016 without additional money, and that did not sit well with Morse.

Rausch's proposal needs to pick up four or five Republican votes in the Senate, where GOP members hold a 13-11 advantage, because there are at least two Democrats who won't support a gas tax.

The increase in Rausch's proposal is small enough not to pre-empt the need for additional money - i.e., a new casino - so it does have a chance. The casino bill will pass the Senate again, but remains a very long shot in the House.

With an election breathing down lawmakers' necks, the best bet is nothing will be done, and the next Legislature will be here January 2016 trying to figure out as quickly as possible how to find more money for the state's transportation system.

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