Lawmakers push to close highway tolls

MERRIMACK – The town might finally have the leverage it has long sought to get rid of the tolls motorists pay at three turnpike exits in town, two state lawmakers who represent the town said Thursday.

That leverage: to withhold town support for the long-delayed Circumferential Highway unless the tollbooths are removed.

“Merrimack is being asked to fund (through tolls) a road to relieve congestion in Nashua,” said Rep. Bob L’Heureux, R-Merrimack.

He suggested that the town make its support for the highway contingent on the state removing tolls at Exits 10, 11 and 12 and not placing a tollbooth on the new road.

“If you think there shouldn’t be tolls here, maybe this project is the only leverage we’re going to have,” said Rep. Chris Christensen, R-Merrimack.

L’Heureux and Christensen pitched the idea during a public hearing on the highway, which has gone several rounds through the revolving door of the list of highway priorities in New Hampshire.

The highway is again on the state’s list for funding in 2014. Because the idea was first proposed decades ago, the Nashua Regional Planning Commission is holding a series of public hearings to see if Nashua, Merrimack, Hudson and Litchfield still support the highway, or another transportation alternative.

Plans are to create a new Exit 9 off the F.E. Everett Turnpike, add a bridge over the Merrimack River and connect to Route 3A in Litchfield and eventually to Routes 102 and 111 in Hudson. The highway would be intended to alleviate traffic in Hudson and Nashua and lessen the number of cars using the Taylor Falls Bridge between the two.

The plan would increase traffic on the Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack and provide a more direct link between the town and communities to the east.

The hearing was held jointly by the Planning Board and Board of Selectmen. Each board voted to discuss the highway at a meeting in early January.Andrew Singelakis, the NRPC’s executive director, said his agency is hoping to garner comments by Jan. 31, 2004.

Singelakis presented information about the problem-plagued highway – which originally was to create a loop extending from the turnpike’s Exit 2 through Hudson and Litchfield and connecting with a proposed Exit 9 in Merrimack.

But environmental concerns nixed the southern part of the plan. The estimated cost for the bridge and connection from Route 111 north to the turnpike is $168 million, Singelakis said.

“We need to find where the communities are on the project,” he said.

Based on comments at the public hearing, opinions in Merrimack are mixed.

“I have a problem with a regional project that solves Nashua problems and makes problems for everybody else,” said Carol Morrison, a Planning Board member.

Fellow board member John Segedy said increasing traffic on the Daniel Webster Highway in town, which the highway would do, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Right now, if you want to head east on 111, it’s horrendous getting there from here,” Segedy said.

“Increases (in traffic) isn’t always bad, because increases can make some of our businesses more viable and improve our tax base,” he said.

Segedy and a number of people who spoke at the hearing said it would be better if the highway tied to the existing Exit 10 instead of creating a new Exit 9.

“The farther north it gets, the more it does for the convenience of Merrimack residents,” he said. “We do have the possibility right now of a huge commercial development right near the turnpike exit.”

Nashua developer Thomas Monahan is in preliminary discussions with Merrimack about a zoning change that could open the way for a mall or large retail complex at Exit 10.

Some speakers questioned if the proposed Circumferential Highway corridor would do much good for Merrimack at all.

“Let Nashua worry about it’s own problems. Let’s get something for Merrimack this time,” said resident Tony Lajewski, who also favored tying a road to Exit 10.

Another resident, Dennis King, applauded the idea to hang the town’s support for the highway on eliminating tolls.

Addressing non-Merrimack residents, King said, “You don’t know what it feels like every time you go out and somebody has their hand out taking money from your pocket.”

He also said traffic congestion isn’t limited to Nashua and Hudson.

“The D.W. Highway at 5 o’clock is a disaster too,” King said.