Yesterday, along with a group of business folks from across New Hampshire, I learned about the difference between “soft” and “hard” infrastructure. “Hard” is the obvious: roads, bridges etc. “Soft” infrastructure is human capital and institutions that cultivate it, such as community colleges and universities. Apparently, the state has deficits in both areas.
Let’s focus on the hard for a moment. For one thing, we don’t have much of a tax base to cover roads, bridges and other types of hard infrastructure. That New Hampshire reality is what the new head of the Department of Transportation, Chris Clement, is facing. He says there will be no more expansion of I-93 without federal matching funds. And Republicans in Congress are threatening to cut those dollars to the state’s DOT by as much as 35 percent.
“I-93 is a road paved with gold,” says Clement. “If they cut those funds, there will be no more projects on I-93.”
Clement has been on the job a little over a month. “I did not have any competition for this job,” he noted.
One can understand why.
DOT’s budget was cut by 13 percent this year and Clement had to lay off 9 percent of his workforce.
What this has meant is that the new commissioner will spend what money he does have very carefully. Gasoline taxes are the state’s primary revenue source for DOT and they have not been raised since 1992.
“If we raised the gas tax by 5 cents, we could take the I-93 expansion off the books, ” says Clement. In other words, 5 cents more per gallon would cover the $350 million needed to finish the ambitious project, which aims to make it easier for visitors and potential residents to come in and out of New Hampshire and possibly revitalize the ailing North Country.
Without a rail system and little visible support for one, there’s more pressure to expand the state’s highways.
Clement wanted the business folks to know he is not an advocate for raising taxes and that his agency is “revenue agnostic,” but the money has to come from somewhere.
Due to major budget cuts, it is also unlikely that the state’s 148 red-listed bridges will get the attention they need. This week ends the series of 27 town meetings where residents ask for their piece of the state’s 10-year infrastructure plan pie — a pie that not long ago was a $4.2 billion pie and now has shrunk in size to just over $1 billion.