Funding the big issue for transportation projects

The question of new revenue streams hung heavily over much of the discussion at the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association’s annual transportation and infrastructure summit – held April 22 at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester.Panelists at the event included: • Mark Brewer, director, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport • Michael Pillsbury, deputy commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Transportation • Rep. Candace Bouchard, chair, New Hampshire House Public Works Committee • Janet Kavinoky, director of infrastructure, U.S. Chamber of Commerce • Katherine Hersh, director, Nashua Community Development, and vice chair, New Hampshire Rail Transit AuthorityDOT’s Pillsbury said that while the state’s 10-year highway plan was cut down significantly – both in terms of number of projects as well as costs – to $3.6 billion, some $450 million remains unfunded.The largest project in the plan – the Interstate 93 expansion – still has a shortfall of as much as $250 million, by some estimates, out of the total $750 million required for the full project, which will widen the highway from the Massachusetts border to Manchester.“Right now, we’re concentrating on Exit 1 through Exit 3, the most congested areas,” he said. “We continue to look at how best to fund that project.”Funding has not been the only hurdle the I-93 project has faced.Several years ago a lawsuit brought by the Conservation Law Fund ended in having a supplemental environmental impact study conducted. Pillsbury said the study should be issued in May.He also said another key project, the access road from the F.E. Everett Turnpike to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, is progressing and is expected to be open by 2012 – two years ahead of schedule.“One of the great opportunities at the access road, not only does the road open up access to the airport, but it opens up a lot of developable land,” he said.Visitors to New Hampshire’s seacoast this summer can look forward to much shorter lines at the I-95 tolls in Hampton, with open-road tolling through the EZPass lanes set to begin sometime this June.Open-road tolling is scheduled for Hooksett in 2011 and Bedford in 2012, said Pillsbury.Airfare ‘war’Raising the state’s gas tax as a source of infrastructure funding remains controversial, said Bouchard of the House Public Works Committee.She said the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1992, and a proposed increase was voted down last year, replaced by a $30 surcharge on vehicle registrations.While those extra fees bring in some $40 million to the state, that law is due to sunset on July 1, 2011, said Bouchard.“We continue to look for sustainable funding,” she said. “We plan to put out a report Nov. 1 of a menu of ideas. The next General Court can pick from that what they think would best solve the problem.”When asked if she thinks another measure for raising the gas tax would be successful, given the current funding situation, she replied, “not in an election year.”Mark Brewer, director of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, said there is a “fare war” going on between the Manchester airport and Boston’s Logan and other regional facilities.“We’re are now in a ‘use it or lose it’ mode,” he said. “I don’t mean in terms of our carriers; they’re basically set. I mean in routes. We are a fraction of what it costs to operate at Logan.”To that end, he said, he and other airport management have already spoken with seven airlines over the past two months about new or expanded service and expect in June to speak with another seven airlines, but he did not specify which carriers the officials have talked to.Hersh, who serves as vice chair of the state’s Rail Transit Authority, said the 28-member committee has worked through several major hurdles and even more remain before passenger rail returns to the Granite State.The establishment of the authority in 2007 and the passage of the liability cap in 2008 were fundamental to the rail plan, but funding remains elusive, she said.The authority intends to seek funds from the Federal Railroad Administration, which supports high-speed inter-city travel, and the Federal Transit Administration, which oversees commuter rail, to pay for the state’s $300 million rail price tag.“Until recently, the current administration has directed communities and rail systems to seek funding from both sources,” she said. U.S. chamber initiativeShe said the state rail authority is focusing on getting high-speed rail from Boston to Concord – with limited stops along the way – and commuter rail service from Boston, up through Lowell, Mass., to Manchester.“Our ultimate goal would be to have high-speed service to Montreal,” said Hersh.A pre-engineering proposal will be due May 16, with results announced in early July.Hersh said operating costs are estimated at $10 million a year, with fares covering between 40 percent and 60 percent – leaving a gap of some $5 million a year.“We are looking at what other communities and regions have done,” she said.One possible source, said Hersh, could be federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds, a source that Maine’s Downeaster rail line uses to help with operating costs.“If all of our funding comes through, we will be riding the trains in 2014 or 2015,” she said.Janet Kavinoky, infrastructure director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying organization, said New Hampshire’s transportation funding battles “mirror” what’s happening on Capitol Hill.“We know what we need to do,” she said, “If you want, at the federal level, to have a highway and transit multi-year plan, to have that certainty, you need a user fee-based source of funding. And that would mean gas and diesel taxes – except we can’t get the politics right.”To help map out some of the country’s transportation issues and possible solutions, Kavinoky has helped to create the Let’s Rebuild America initiative, with a goal of modernizing all the country’s infrastructure, including water, energy and broadband and well as planes, trains and automobiles.“We have launched a project to find out what’s important and why to business,” she said. “We are asking business members, ‘How do you think those systems perform?’ We are going to pick factors important to business, measure them and compare that to where the economy’s going.”She said, “We will be able to use that data on Capitol Hill and states can also use it make more convincing cases, not just for more investment, but to fight off regulation.”Cindy Kibbe can be reached at