Distant Dome is co-published by Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org
By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome
Third rails in American politics are numerous.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is about to touch the electrified steel rail when he attempts to change Social Security and Medicare in the next federal budget cycle.
People who paid Social Security and Medicare taxes their entire working lives in exchange for security when they retire are easily riled and vote in large numbers and with long memories.
Third rails also exists in state politics.
New Hampshire has a few. Broad-based taxes, which has come to mean income and sales taxes, certainly qualify for the distinction.
In recent years, the only governor elected without taking the infamous pledge was Jeanne Shaheen when she ran for a third term. She took the pledge her first two gubernatorial campaigns.
Shaheen was also aware of the other third rail in Granite State politics, toll increases.
In her first campaign for elected office in 1990, Shaheen ran against sitting senator Frank Torr, a Dover Republican who chaired the Senate Capital Budget Committee which oversees the state’s 10-Year Highway Plan.
Torr backed a toll increase although legislators realized the possible calamity of toll increases a long time ago and gave the responsibility to the Governor and Executive Council.
Torr did not and could not vote for the toll increase, but Shaheen used his support to her political advantage.
Drivers approaching the Dover toll both could not escape seeing a very large sign proclaiming Torr’s Toll that her campaign erected.
Shaheen defeated the sitting senator and served two more terms in the state Senate before running successfully for Governor, serving three terms.
A toll and gas tax increase was also behind the non-renewal of one of the state’s most innovative and effective Highway Commissioner in the last couple of decades, Charles O’Leary.
Appearing at a Dalton selectmen’s meeting in 1994, O’Leary lamented the lack of state funds necessary to repair the state’s red listed bridges, including one in that town.
Asked his advice for motorists, O’Leary said, “Drive fast and don’t look back.”
That quote became a headline no night copy editor could ever resist in the state’s largest newspaper the day the Governor and Executive Council was scheduled to meet in Derry.
Then Gov. Steve Merrill, livid and red-faced, told reporters before the meeting “I’m furious. I would fire him if I could.”
While the council and governor met in closed session to discuss the quote with O’Leary, most reporters who covered the State House knew he had the backing of at least four of the Executive Councilors and Merrill would not be able to remove him, although he did not nominate him for another term.
Unfortunately, the latest toll hike proposal has not produced anything as entertaining as the O’Leary and Merrill squabble.
Current Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan, who serves on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation with the five executive councilors, and her staff presented a powerpoint touting the need for additional money for turnpike system projects.
The advisory commission proposes the state’s 10-year highway improvement plan before it goes to the governor and then the legislature for final approval every two years.
The commission has had a difficult task for a while to make revenues match system needs. Money for highway and bridge work has dwindled as vehicles are more efficient, electric vehicles increase, and higher gasoline prices have reduced travel to shrink the money raised by the gasoline tax that funds non-turnpike highways and bridges.
Lawmakers increased the gas tax several years ago for the first time in more than 20 years.
Tolls, which fund the turnpike system, have not increased in 10 years. The price of most everything associated with highway construction has increased substantially in a decade.
Under the plan presented by the Department of Transportation, tolls at the Hooksett and Bedford booths would increase 50 cents to $1.50, and the Hampton toll booths would go from $2.00 to $2.50. The ramp or exit tolls would increase 25 cents to $1, which the EZ Pass discount would remain the same.
The increases would raise $36 million a year.
The additional money would speed up long-awaited projects in Manchester and Concord and the installation of sound walls to damper turnpike noise in residential areas.
All worthy projects, but toll increases are seriously unpopular and the unwritten Granite State motto is, “Don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree.”
That means people from out-of-state like second home owners, tourists or people traveling through New Hampshire to go to another state. That is the reason the toll is $2 at Hampton on I-95 which is used by southern New Englanders to go to Maine and the White Mountains via the Spaulding Turnpike, which has toll booths 10 miles apart as they are in Hooksett and Bedford.
The latest figures from the Department of Transportation indicate that non-residents pay about 55 percent of the money raised by tolls.
When the most recent expansion of the FE Everett Turnpike from Bedford to Nashua was done, a new toll plaza was scheduled to open in the Gate City to help pay for the project, but the Nashua delegation and the Nashua Executive Councilor convinced lawmakers to remove it from the highway improvement plan and turnpike revenue has never really recovered.
And the Merrimack tolls have always been controversial with the community’s delegation pushing to remove the tolls the community agreed to many years ago to pay for its three exits. The bonds for the project will expire in 2020 and the latest plan would end the two remaining ramp tolls in the town that year.
There is always the political angle to tolls and this proposal is no exception.
District 4 Executive Councilor Chris Pappas represents Manchester where the Amoskeag Circle redesign and Everett Turnpike expansion through the Millyard have been delayed for lack of money as has the expansion of I-93 from Bow through Concord.
During the summer, traffic is often stop and go through both Concord and Manchester as the three and four lanes merge down into two.
Pappas seeks the Democratic nomination for the 1st congressional district seat being vacated by Carol Shea-Porter. His fellow Democratic candidates, and if he wins, his GOP opponent will certainly try to make him pay for his toll increase support.
District 2 Councilor Andru Volinksy, a Concord Democrat, and District 2 Councilor Russell Prescott, a Kingston Republican also support the increase giving it a 3-2 margin.
The other two Republicans, District 1 Councilor Joseph Kenney of Wakefield and David Wheeler of Milford, oppose the increase as does Gov. Chris Sununu.
Sununu controls the council’s agenda and he has no requirement to bring it to a vote. However, the first-term governor and former Executive Councilor, put it on last week’s agenda.
But instead of an up or down vote, the item was withdrawn until public hearings could be held this week in Manchester and Concord. A public hearing was held in Portsmouth last week.
The item is expected back before the council in January which will allow time for more political maneuvering.
Does it make sense for Pappas to vote for the increase if Sununu negates the vote, which he can do. And if he does, how many votes does the council have to have to override, certainly more than the three supporters.
Did Republican Sununu put the toll increase on the agenda to put Pappas on record to help his party’s candidate in the general election or Pappas’s opponents in the primary?
Will groups opposing the increase such as the motor transport association (the truckers) and American for Prosperity-NH (the Koch brothers’ mouthpiece) go after Prescott with a primary challenge?
Both groups opposed the recent hike in the gas tax and they say the toll increase is another tax hike.
Tolls are the ultimate user fee. Every turnpike toll booth is easy to avoid. Just count the number of trailer trucks waiting at the light at the end of I-89 to take Route 3A around the Hooksett tolls. The truck stop halfway between the end of I-89 and Exit 10 on I-93 does a brisk business.
Every motorist can decide whether he or she wants to use the turnpike system and pay the toll or drive around.
The question is what is a person’s time worth. Are the miles and time you save using the turnpike system worth the cost?
Adding 50 or 25 cents to the equation really isn’t going to change much if you like the convenience.
And that is what proponents are counting on.
Once the increase goes into effect, people forget and few vehicles divert onto secondary roads to avoid paying the additional money.
And the extra money will eventually make it less stressful to go through Concord or Manchester’s Millyard on Friday night, lower the noise level for people living close to turnpikes, and fix a few more red listed bridges.
Garry Rayno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome runs exclusively on Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org, where Rayno will explore a broader perspective on State House – and state – happenings. Over his three-decade career Rayno has closely covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat, and his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. He is former editor of The Hillsboro Messenger and Assistant Editor of The Argus-Champion. Rayno graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English Literature and lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.