By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Everyone agrees more money is needed for the state’s highway system, but they also disagree about the fairest method.
Lawmakers on Tuesday heard two proposals — one targeting large trucks and tractor-trailers and the other fuel-efficient and electric vehicles — to increase money for the Highway Trust Fund.
The fund largely pays for state roads and bridges and a portion of local highway infrastructure, but revenue has been declining for some time with the advent of greater fuel efficiency and hybrid, electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.
On Tuesday state transportation officials said that trend will continue and revenue would be 10 or 15 percent less in 10 years if nothing is done.
Both plans would produce enough revenue to bring the Highway Trust Fund closer to what is needed to maintain and improve the state’s highway system, and both seek to replace the lost gas tax revenue from greater fuel efficiency and hybrid and electric vehicle.
However, that is where the agreement ends.
House Bill 1650 would increase vehicle registrations using weight and miles driven to determine the cost. The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Peter Somssich, D-Portsmouth, predicts it will produce between $35 million and $45 million annually.
House Bill 1649 would assess a road usage fee ranging from $10 to $125 depending on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle with the greater fuel economy the higher the usage fee.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Norm Major, R-Plaistow, said his plan would generate $26 million during the first year with about $22 million for the Highway Fund.
He said his proposed road usage fee would produce about $157 million if all vehicles were electric with about $137 million going to the Highway Fund.
“The advantage over miles traveled is there is no worry over privacy, there is no tracking device,” Major said. “You don’t need an army to administer it.”
Somssich criticized Major’s plan saying it is a disincentive to fuel efficiency and does nothing to measure road usage.
“This targets New Hampshire residents who drive fuel-efficient cars,” he told the House Public Works and Highways Committee, while “road usage wear and tear depends on the weight of vehicles and the miles traveled. Everyone would contribute their fair share.”
He noted while truckers would pay more under his plan, the owners would be able to deduct the registration fees from their taxes as they do now as a business expense.
Committee member Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford, raised several issues with Somssich’s plan noting a truck owner could be charged for traveling 50,000 miles a year, but 40,000 of those miles are out of state, and he noted there is nothing to stop a truck owner from registering the vehicle in Maine, which would be cheaper and avoid the increased fees.
“I’m trying to measure road usage,” Somssich explained, “but there is no good data.”
Under HB 1650, about $2 million a year would be reserved to build new sound barriers in up to 49 locations in the state including a long-sought barrier along I-95 in Portsmouth.
Erecting all the barriers would cost about $125 million, said Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Chris Waszczuk, noting 26 are along the federal turnpike system funded with tolls and not the highway funds.
Portsmouth resident Donna Garganta said she and her neighbors have been trying for years to have the state erect a sound barrier to diminish the noise from I-95, which has grown from four to 12 lanes near her neighborhood.
“When traffic is at a standstill in the summer, it is the quietist,” she said. “This is a very fair, equitable and common sense solution.”
Jason Stock of the NH Timberland Owners Association opposed the bill saying with the recent market change, lumber haulers have to travel greater distances to deliver low-grade wood to Maine and Canada, and often use private roads, yet would be charged for those miles under the bill.
And he said even if the owners can deduct the registration fees as the cost of doing business, it still affects a company’s bottom line.
“It does become a big deal, especially if you have a fleet, you do pay more,” Stock said. “We believe we do pay our fair share.”
Major said his proposal would require those who currently do not pay the gas tax to contribute to the highway system.
“The objective of the fee is to make up for the state Highway Trust Fund revenue that is lost as vehicle fuel efficiency increases over time,” Major told the committee, “and to spread the burden of highway investment and maintenance more equitably across vehicle owners.”
He said the situation is not going to change and will become worse unless something is done, noting the major automakers have announced plans to expand production of electric vehicles in the coming decade.
Major said the condition of state’s road and bridges has deteriorated over the last two decades. Of the 3,849 state and municipal bridges, 1,212 are 75 years old or older.
“That’s a major looming liability if we do not invest in bridge maintenance and preservation efforts,” Major said.
Pete King of Mont Vernon, representing the American Council of Engineering Companies, supported HB 1649 even though he drives an electric vehicle and does not pay gas tax now.
“I’m willing to pay the equivalent of the gas tax I don’t pay because I want good roads. I want good bridges and I’m willing to pay for it,” King said. “I don’t see it as a penalty, I see it as an equitable way to pay for New Hampshire roads.”
Environmental groups have opposed Major’s plan saying it encourages using fossil fuel whose emissions are the biggest contributor to the state’s air pollution.
Madeleine Mineau, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire, opposed the bill saying electric and hybrid vehicles are a tiny fraction of the vehicles using New Hampshire roads, and account for about 1 percent of new car sales.
“New Hampshire is the only state in New England without a zero emissions mandate,” Mineau said, “with no state incentive to purchase electric vehicles.”
She asked the committee not to pass the bill she said would discriminate against the owners of electric or fuel-efficient vehicles.
Several committee members asked Major and Department of Transportation officials if the money is enough to actually begin to take care of the backlog of projects.
Waszczuk said based on past experience no, but noted it was up to the legislature to decide the level of service for the state’s roads and bridges.
“If you want them all to be good or very good,” he said, “that will take more.”
Major’s proposal has been before the House several times and has yet to make it to the Senate. A similar bill last session was retained and then tabled earlier this year, although the committee recommended the bill pass.
Somssich introduced a bill last session to increase the registration fees based on weight, but that bill also failed.
Graham, a co-sponsor of HB 1649, told his fellow committee members the General Court has lacked the backbone to address the need for highway revenue for two decades.
“We need to do something, and we need to start now,” Graham said. “It’s a matter of fairness and equity and who pays what, but there are two options: increase the tolls or the gas tax, and we just eliminated one toll plaza.”
The committee did not make immediate recommendations on the bills.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.