By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – It looks like the Merrimack tolls will be eliminated starting Jan. 1 after a vote Wednesday by members of the Executive Council in their role as the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation.
The 4 to 1 vote at the GACIT meeting was to prepare a resolution before the Nov. 25 Executive Council meeting to zero out the cost of going through the Merrimack tolls. Councilor Michael Cryans, D-Hanover, was the no vote.
The Executive Council will have the final say at that meeting as long as Republican Gov. Chris Sununu puts the resolution on the agenda.
And it’s very likely that that Sununu will because he issued a news release on Tuesday calling for the elimination of the Merrimack tolls.
Democratic Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli has been working on the Merrimack tolls issue since 2004. She was thrilled that they will very likely be zeroed out soon.
“This is the first time I have three councilors to pass this so I am really pleased for the Merrimack folks,” Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli thanked state Senator Shannon Chandley and the Merrimack Town Council for their hard work to help make it happen.
Pignatelli and Sununu had exchanged words previously over remarks Sununu made stating that she favored raising tolls.
A video posted on Pignatelli’s Facebook page Oct. 24 by Chuck Grau shows Sununu in a room with people answering questions. On the tape, Sununu can be heard responding to a question.
“Go talk to Deb. Deb’s all for raising tolls. Good luck trying to get Deb to get rid of your tolls. Really, you should talk to her. She’s been ignoring me since the day she got in,” on the Executive Council, Sununu said.
He said the councilors support maintaining the tolls to get money for Concord for multi-million dollar projects which are nowhere near being ready.
“….all they want to do is raise tolls,” Sununu said. “You know where they want to put all the money? Concord.”
After the Council meeting Wednesday, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who is running in Democratic primary for governor, accused Sununu of not being truthful in remarks he made alleging that Pignatelli likes raising tolls.
He accused the governor of misleading the council and badmouthing Pignatelli.
“The governor had the audacity to issue a press release just to get ahead of a parade that had already left,” Volinsky said. Volinsky added that he doesn’t like calling anyone a liar, but “facts are facts.”
Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt responded saying Sununu has consistently opposed increasing tolls across New Hampshire.
“Out of the Governor and five councilors, there is only one individual at today’s meeting that has cast a final vote to raise tolls at a Governor and Council meeting. That is Councilor Pignatelli, who voted to raise tolls in 2007, which is what the Governor was referring to in Merrimack,” Vihstadt said.
According to meeting minutes from a 2007 meeting, Pignatelli voted to raise tolls in Hooksett, Bedford, Dover, and Rochester Mainline Tolls and the Hampton Side Tolls.
Republican Executive Councilor Russell Prescott said the resolution will set the Merrimack toll price at zero. The buildings will still be there, he said.
It would require a change in state law to remove them, but the council can set the toll cost at zero.
“It’s been a long time coming and needs to happen right away. The people of Merrimack have been isolated,” Prescott said, adding they need free access to the F.E. Everett Turnpike. “It’s a fairness issue,” Prescott said.
Sheehan approved as Transportation Commissioner
Victoria Sheehan of Nashua was approved for another term as commissioner of the Department of Transportation. She will be paid $139,007.
The Keene Swingers, singers from the Senior Center in Keene, came to the council meeting and sang “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead and others, concluding with everyone in the chamber singing “God Bless America.”
The council accepted the resignation of Jeffrey A. Meyers of Concord as commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services among other resignations, confirmations, and nominations.
Volinsky thanked him for his service and asked the governor what was next. Sununu said he is pulling together a small committee to help make a recommendation to his office. “It is not going to be a rushed process,” he said. Dec. 6 is Meyers’s last day.
Teacher of the Year honored
Teacher of the Year 2020 Kimberly Piper-Stoddard was recognized by the governor and council. Her dedication and enthusiasm for her students at the state prison were commended.
Guaranteed loans for public benefit
The council held public hearings and voted to authorize the Business Finance Authority to enter contracts with Millyard Bank of the Nashua area which hopes to open this winter and the Capital Regional Development Council.
The council authorized a contract with Loudon’s F.L. Merrill Construction Inc. for intersection reconstruction and safety improvements on NH Route 28 in Barnstead on the basis of a low bid of $4,126,853.
It also authorized a contract with R.M. Piper Inc. of Plymouth for rehabilitation of the bridge carrying NH Route 16 over Ellis River in Jackson, on the basis of a low bid of $1,462,477.75.
And an agreement with BETA Group Inc., Manchester, for preliminary design of improvements to approximately three miles of NH Route 125 in the Town of Epping, for an amount not to exceed $1,404,791.
The council also entered a contract with E.D. Swett Inc., Concord for bridge rehabilitation efforts on I-89 Northbound and Southbound bridges over US Route 4 at Exit 19 and associated ramp work and bridge preservation work on the I-89 northbound and southbound bridges over the Mascoma River on the basis of a low bid of $9,764,986.
Cannon Mountain and Franconia Ski Club Agreement
The council also authorized the Division of Parks and Recreation to enter into an amended agreement with Franconia Ski Club of Franconia to continue competitive ski racing and snow sports and skier education programs at Cannon Mountain for a period of 35 years.
Originally approved in 2013, the agreement acknowledges the receipt of a gift of an estimated $2.5 million from the club which was key to the rebuild of Mittersill.
Tabled was the governor’s nomination of Stephen M. Appleby of Bedford to the Department of Education as director of the Division of Educator Support and Higher Education.
It was done at the request of Pignatelli after she said some last-minute concerns about the nominee were raised. Volinsky also said he had a concern about qualifications though he noted Appleby is a “nice guy.”
Prescott of Kingston asked the two Democrats to share any and all information they find on the nomination prior to the vote, likely in two weeks.