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Both sides have their say on proposed toll hike at Concord hearing

State House Bureau

December 12. 2017 8:42PM
State Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, addresses a public hearing on proposed toll increases at DOT headquarters in Concord on Tuesday night. (DAVE SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — Brian Mazerski of Henniker has commuted to a job in Massachusetts for 14 years. That's four tolls a day — two in Hooksett and two in Bedford — adding up to $56 a month and $650 a year.

The increase in toll rates on the state turnpike system, now being considered by the Executive Council, would increase those costs to $84 a month and $1,000 a year, he says.

At a Tuesday night public hearing in Concord on the proposed toll hikes, Mazerski urged the councilors to consider the plight of those who regularly use the turnpikes and would bear a disproportionate share of the increase.

"Though New Hampshire folks are generally averse to tax increases, the equitable answer is a nominal increase in the gasoline tax, which would evenly target all New Hampshire drivers," he told Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, and Department of Transportation officials hosting the hearing at DOT headquarters on Hazen Drive.

Mazerski joined representatives of the state's truckers, grocery distributors and fuel transportation industry in voicing opposition to the toll increases, while regional planners, representatives of engineering firms and road builders said the increases would be a wise investment.

Republican leadership in the state Legislature was represented by Rep. Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry.

"We are opposed to this. The Speaker and the Majority Leader are opposed," he said. "We don't believe adding an increase in the tolls at this time is the right thing for New Hampshire citizens. We believe there is a problem that needs to be solved, but at the national level, not just at the New Hampshire level."

State Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, urged the council to approve the increases as a way of generating an estimated 16,000 new jobs while addressing many of the safety and congestion issues at turnpike bottlenecks in Nashua, Manchester and Concord.

"I look at this from three perspectives," he said. "Jobs, jobs and jobs."

Donald Hemingway of Evans Motor Fuels in Enfield said business owners would be hard-pressed to pass along the average 27 percent increase to customers, and would have to absorb most of the cost.

"If we asked for a 27-percent increase, our customers would be leaving in droves," he said. "We feel the timing is totally wrong to ask for an increase."

Kevin Murray, director of transportation for Associated Grocers of New England, agreed. "The only choice we'll have is to absorb this increase or pass it along to our customers," he said.

Tim Blagdon of the Central N.H. Regional Planning Commission said the state's economy, particularly the hospitality and tourism industry, would benefit significantly from the turnpike improvements the toll hikes would pay for.

"If you enable people to get in and out of New Hampshire more conveniently and safer it will have a positive effect on the economy," he said.

Alex Koutroubas, executive director of the N.H. chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, representing 60 N.H. design and inspection firms, said the investment is needed.

"The engineering community in the state strongly believes there is a pressing need for the improvements these increases will bring to the turnpike system," he said.

At the end of the hearing, Volinsky took stock of the testimony: "I count eight for and eight against tonight."

First in a decade

If implemented, the toll changes would be the first in a decade and would accelerate the timetable for completing existing projects in the state's 10-year highway plan, while adding some new ones.

Rates would increase to $1.50 from $1 at the mainline tolls at Hooksett and Bedford. The Hampton toll would go to $2.50; the toll plazas on the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover and Rochester would go up to $1 apiece from the current 75 cents.

All this would raise $36 million more a year and would pay for $750 million in upgrades over the next decade as long as the state issued a new, $50 million bond in 2022, according to the proposal created by the Department of Transportation.

Discounts are proposed for commuters who travel through multiple plazas and pay relatively high monthly tolls. With discounts accounted for, the DOT estimates the increases would raise annual toll revenue by 27 percent.

The five-member Executive Council is scheduled to meet again on Dec. 20 as the Governor's Advisory Council on Transportation to vote one more time on the proposal. If at least three of five councilors support the proposal, it will be up to the governor to decide whether it will be on a future agenda for a formal council vote.

Councilor Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, will host a public hearing in Manchester tonight at 7 p.m. at Manchester City Hall, Aldermanic Chambers, third floor, at 1 City Hall Plaza.

Transportation State Government

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