In February, Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement told a legislative committee that his agency was neither for nor against a House bill that would raise the state’s gas tax by 12 cents to pay for much-needed repairs to New Hampshire’s roads and bridges.
At the time, Clement could remain, as he put it, “revenue agnostic,” as long as income earmarked for his department from a proposed casino was still a possibility.
But the House swept the casino option off the table two weeks ago, leaving the gas tax increase as the only proposed alternative to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
Accordingly, at a gathering of business leaders in Concord on Monday, Clement assumed a less guarded position on the House proposal.
A gas tax hike, he said, would put the department on a “path to greatness.” The increase, which would bring in an estimated $817 million over the next 10 years, would allow for completion of I-93, double state aid for municipal bridge and highway repairs and fully fund the state’s 10-year transportation plan.
“If we do not get a long-term, sustainable funding source in the next biennium, we are in really big trouble,” said Clement, speaking at a panel sponsored by the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.
Clement said the department has relied on a series of “one-time fixes” to plug a $124 million hole in the state’s highway fund, including issuing bonds to pay for operations, raising vehicle registration fees and selling a portion of I-95 in order to divert turnpike revenue to the highway fund.
The latter scheme brought in $120 million, which was supposed to be disbursed over 20 years. But four years later, Clement said, the money is just about gone. “We’re done – we have about $24 million left,” he said.
Meanwhile, state aid to municipalities for bridge repair and maintenance has not increased since 1994, he said. As a result, the state shut down 11 bridges last year, including two in Francestown on the same day. All told, nearly 500 state and municipal bridges have been red-listed, meaning they have structural deficiencies.
Some of those red-listed bridges, including Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth and the Sewalls Fall Road bridge over the Merrimack in Concord, now have to be replaced, at much greater cost.
“The Memorial Bridge was our number one red-listed bridge,” he said. “Less than 20 years ago, it was $20 million to do a complete rehab that would have given us a brand new bridge. We didn’t have the money. Now we’re spending $90 million to replace it because we didn’t maintain it.”
According to TRIP, a nonprofit transportation safety group, New Hampshire’s roads are in similarly dire condition. More than a third of state-maintained roads and highways — some 4,559 miles of pavement — are in need of repair, according to the group, while the state DOT has a current roads and bridge maintenance backlog of $1.3 billion.
Reversing the trend won’t be easy.
The Republican-led Senate rejected the House’s plan to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991, one day after the Democratic-led House killed the Senate’s casino bill. Because it’s in the House’s version of the budget, the gas tax will likely be part of the negotiations by the bipartisan committee of conference when it begins to assemble the final budget later this month.
Whether it survives those negotiations is another matter.
Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Democrat from Concord who chairs the House Transportation Committee, told the BIA group that the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation, or GACIT, will begin public hearings on the 10-year transportation plan in July.
Bouchard said that if the commission doesn’t have more revenue to work with, New Hampshire’s cities and towns will have to continue deferring much-needed maintenance on their roads and bridges.
That would not only present a potential public-safety problem, but an economic one, as well.
“We’ve become a state that is not completing on an economic level with the surrounding New England states,” Bouchard said. “And if we’re going to go forward and to grow our economy, invest in jobs, we’re really going to have to look at the deficit we have in this plan.”