Infrastructure frustrations

It’s time for a rational discussion of how to meet New Hampshire’s funding needs

There continues to be a lot of discussion about infrastructure needs, both nationally and in New Hampshire.

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged an increase in the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure. The chamber, not a well-known left wing, radical, pro-tax group, to say the least, was taking a practical and obvious stance in making the suggestion.

Recently, I was watching a rerun of “The West Wing” television show of the late ‘90s, just to see what a White House filled with idealists and policy people might look like, and one of the shows focused on the “brand new” Prius hybrid automobile.

By now, millions of Priuses have been sold and automobile magazines are even criticizing the vehicle as “old technology.”

Hybrid cars and all-electric vehicles highlight part of the problem we face in paying for roads. When all cars ran on gasoline, and the average car got 12 miles per gallon, it was easy to fund highways with a gas tax, even at a relatively low rate per gallon.

Now, however, even all-gas vehicles get 25 miles per gallon or more and hybrids get close to 50 miles per gallon. All-electric vehicles use no gas at all. 

The chamber’s wise recommendation is to raise the gas tax in recognition of the increased vehicle mileage.

The gas tax is not a broad-based tax. It is a “user fee” applied only to those who make use of the vehicles that use the roads. However, this does not result in any contribution by those vehicles that are all-electric or use alternate fuels like hydrogen, which apparently is on the horizon.

There are two possible solutions. One is increasing tolls that those vehicles pay, as well as all others, in combination with an increase in the gas tax. The other is a one-time registration fee (or annual fee) applied only to non-gas vehicles, somehow calculating what the fee would be based on the nature of the vehicle, amount of predicted usage, etc.

Recently, there was a proposal in New Hampshire to raise highway tolls. Interestingly, the debate was shut off when Gov. Chris Sununu refused to bring the matter before the Executive Council. He only did this after certain right-wing lobbying and “think tank” organizations accused an increased toll of being a “tax,” which should be avoided in a state where it is either religious or ideological doctrine that taxes don’t go up.

That was nonsense. A toll is a user fee, and if people who use the roads are to pay for them, they have to do so in a rational manner, of which tolls are a part. Of course, increasing tolls would be consistent with New Hampshire’s tradition of taxing those from out-of-state, and out-of-state drivers could pay an increased toll right before they went to the liquor stores on the highway!

In any event, until the discussion becomes rational and analytical, nothing is going to happen in terms of infrastructure improvement.

Meanwhile, the subject of commuter rail was highlighted when Governor Sununu changed his position on funding a study and indicated his support.

Commuter rail not only is romantic and popular with those who want to increase the workforce and attract young people to New Hampshire, whether it would or not, it is also controversial, because in a place like New Hampshire with a relatively light number of users, making commuter rail profitable is problematic, and there does not seem to be any government money to subsidize it.

Another interesting rail-connected development is the advent of a private company proposing service to Nashua and Bedford from Worcester, Mass. Why there would be any call for Worcester to Nashua and Bedford is a question I cannot answer, but the idea of a private company thinking it could be viable suggests that perhaps adding Manchester, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and a connection to the MBTA in Lowell might increase profitability and desirability.

It has always seemed to me that the answer to finding out about the viability of commuter rail would be to extend the rail lines from Lowell to South Nashua and see if it works, before spending a lot of money extending it to other places.

Anyway, these infrastructure matters need to be addressed in a sensible, non-ideological and practical way. Maybe that will happen. Maybe not. 

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord