A proposed 50% increase in turnpike tolls - the first systemwide hike in 10 years - would speed up existing reconstruction projects on Interstate 293 in Manchester, N.H., in Concord, N.H. and on the Seacoast; fund new projects; and eliminate the two ramp tolls at the F.E. Everett Turnpike exits in Merrimack, N.H. according to a new state report.
To soften the blow, state transportation officials are recommending a unique discount, only for New Hampshire commuters who go through multiple toll plazas daily.
But at least one executive councilor called the process “garbage” and warned that the Republican-led Executive Council and Gov. Chris Sununu risk angering taxpayers if they embrace the plan early next month.
“To me the process was just garbage and this just reeked of pushing this through under the radar and during the holiday season,” said Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, the one councilor who opposed sending it to the council for a Dec. 6 vote. “There’s no defense for it.”
Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, said the increase is long overdue, and that most of it will be paid by out-of-state drivers. He commended Councilor Russell Prescott, a conservative Republican from Exeter, for championing it.
“We can’t address the red list bridges without an increase, and tolls haven’t changed in 10 years,” Volinsky said. “We depend on highways for tourism. Russ (Prescott) deserves credit, not condemnation.”
The council and Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan sit on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation (GACIT), which every two years reviews and presents to the governor changes to the next 10-year highway plan. Sheehan is a nonvoting member of the commission.
Nov. 22 GACIT voted 4-1, with Wheeler in opposition, to place the toll hike before the council. Councilor Joseph Kenney, R-Wakefield, told associates he’s inclined to oppose the toll package when it comes for a final vote.
Prescott told colleagues Sununu has not embraced the idea, but will allow it to come before the council Dec. 6.
“We aren’t giving the public ample enough time to weigh in on this,” Wheeler said.
The New Hampshire Union Leader obtained the seven-page report the Department of Transportation put together for GACIT to consider.
“It is interesting and important to note that 55 percent or $70.1 million of the total toll revenue collected in Fiscal Year 2016 came from out-of-state travelers,” the report begins.
Council sets toll rates
By law, the Executive Council, and governor, with either his consent or his veto, set toll rates on New Hampshire turnpikes.
The Legislature decides how any additional turnpike toll money gets spent, and it would have to permit this new commuter discount to be offered.
The last systemwide increase was effective Oct. 22, 2007. Then in 2009, councilors bumped the toll at the Interstate 95 plaza in Hampton from to $1.50 to $2 so some lanes could accept E-ZPass, which allows drivers to go through tolls at the speed limit.
The proposed increase would raise the rates to $1.50 from $1 at the mainline tolls at Hooksett and Bedford. The Hampton toll would go up to $2.50, and 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, officials said.
“A frequent user/commuter plan would be implemented with the intent to soften the impact of the toll increase on commuters that travel through multiple plazas and pay relatively high monthly tolls,” the report said.
Here’s how the new discount, which would begin July 1, would work if lawmakers give the OK:
- N.H. E-ZPass users only: This would not change the 30% discount all drivers get for using an E-ZPass transponder, even those from outside New Hampshire who bought that transponder in their home state.
- .10 free trips per month: The first 40 trips for in-state residents would be paid at the regular discounted rate. The next 10 each month would be free for them.
For example, a commuter who drives from Concord, N.H. to Nashua, N.H. every work day would reach 40 trips after two weeks (10 commutes). Then the next 10 would be free.
The same discount would apply on the Spaulding Turnpike; someone going from Rochester, N.H. to Portsmouth, N.H. daily would hit 40 trips halfway through the month.
State transportation officials readily admit this new offering would be limited to 24,000 drivers, or only 3.5%, of the 680,000 who have E-ZPass. More than 60% of them now use their E-ZPass less than two times a month.
Priority project delays
Without the increase, top priority projects such as widening Exit 6 and reconstructing Exit 7 in Manchester, N.H. would not be completed for up to a decade.
There have been 550 crashes near those exits from 2009-15, and the crash rate in the last three years has gone up 35%, officials said.
The widening of the Everett Turnpike from Bow through Concord, N.H. is needed for the tourist economy, the report maintains.
“Travelers experience an average 15-minute peak delay on Fridays in the late afternoon to early evening during the weeks from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. This delay is expected to grow significantly by the completion date of 2033,” the report said. The Friday delay alone costs all drivers $1.5 million a year.
“This has a negative effect on the state’s economy and tourism, where travelers may decide to shorten their travel route or pick another area to visit, should delay and congestion continue to grow and become intolerable,” the report states.
The toll increase would speed up completion of the project by six years.
Wheeler said working-class residents whose real income hasn’t risen can ill afford to pay more for tolls.
“The proposal is just another way to raise taxes,” Wheeler said. “To me, it is just incredible.”
State officials point out New Hampshire’s toll rate - averaging 6.2 cents per turnpike mile - is the sixth lowest in the country and well below the national average of 20.7 cents.
“New Hampshire toll rates are economical and a great value when compared to toll rates across the country,” the state DOT report concludes.