Legislators’ transportation agenda will be difficult, expensive

The new year will be a busy one for the legislative committees that tackle transportation issues, with members getting ready to consider several bills aimed at getting work on New Hampshire’s gridlocked and aging infrastructure moving again.

By far, the House Public Works and Highways Committee probably has the biggest impending agenda — the bulk of its already full plate will be to plow through the state’s 10-year highway plan and trim it down to meet spending limits.

“There will be $1 billion less than the current 10-year plan,” said Rep. Candace Bouchard, D-Concord, chair of the panel. “We can’t fund [the current plan].”

Bouchard said that the new plan was “really slimmed down,” with a number of projects removed due to lack of public support or for environmental reasons.

Dovetailing with the committee’s review of the plan will be the consideration of Senate Bill 84, which deals with how projects are assigned to the transportation plan. Many projects placed in the plan are not immediately funded, hoping instead they would eventually be funded when the time came to work on them, she said.

“It used to be taboo to take anything out of the plan,” said Bouchard.

Under SB 84, she said, projects would have to meet certain hurdles to be placed into the plan in the first place “and meet criteria to be taken out,” she said. “By federal law, the first four years of the transportation plan must be funded.”

Plans for additional transportation infrastructure are only part of a very complicated, very expensive funding puzzle, since money to pay for the various repair, replacement and expansion projects has become increasingly difficult to find.

“Costs have increased 45 percent in the last three years as the world competes for oil, asphalt and steel,” said Sen. Robert Letourneau, R-Derry, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee.

Limited sources

A hike in the state’s gas tax – which hasn’t been increased in well over 10 years – seems to be an easy choice at first glance to beef up transportation funding.

But Rep. Jim Ryan, D-Franklin, chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he feels a gas tax “lands hardest on those living in rural areas and those with less earning power. Having a gas tax or not could spell the difference between success and failure for these people.”

Likewise, Letourneau said he opposed raising the gas tax outright as well as a slightly different funding scheme of automatic incremental increases.

Bouchard said a gas tax “is just not practical with increasing fuel efficiency of cars and more and more people driving hybrid cars.”

And holding out needy hands to the feds won’t work this time either, for those very reasons.

Ironically, Letourneau said, because of fuel efficiency, fewer federal funds are coming in to the state because less tax revenue is being collected.

There might be small hope for extra dollars by examining just how those gas-tax dollars are divvied up and reallocating funds.

“All gas-tax dollars go to the roads,” said Bouchard, “but there is a diversion of funds for state troopers, the DMV, the courts, Health and Human Services. We’ll be looking at whether those dollars should really be diverted from the DOT.”

However, she said, if those programs are not funded by Highway Fund, those dollars will have to come from the General Fund, setting up a separate and perhaps as contentious debate.

According to Bouchard, the federal government also allows states to borrow against any anticipated federal highway grants through the use of grant anticipation revenue vehicles, or GARVEE, bonds. But, she added, “the federal government is also talking about making substantial cutbacks in transportation grants.”

One potential source of added money may be through fines incurred from trucks that exceed their weight limits on roads.

According to Ryan, there has not been an adjustment in the fines — about $100 plus a $20 court fee — since the 1980s, something he’d like to see as much as triple.

“The pounding an overweight truck gives a bridge or highway” is enormous, he said, adding that he doesn’t want the state “to be in the position that the fine is just the cost of doing business” for transportation companies.

Although not strictly a funding issue, Ryan said his House committee will be looking for ways to expand park-and-ride services and even encouraging carpooling.

“We are considering any number of other things to reduce costs and pain at the pump,” he said, adding that consumption and emissions also will be discussed.

Another possible source of funding that Bouchard said her committee will be taking a closer look at is what other states have done with alternate fuels and hybrid vehicles.

“But we don’t know what form these would take,” she said.

One funding option that legislators appear skeptical of is a VMT, or vehicle mileage tax, under which cars are outfitted with GPS systems that track how much and how far car owners drive.

Although sounding a bit like something out of George Orwell’s “1984,” it is a possible funding choice for the state’s transportation issues, and was mentioned by outgoing Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles O’Leary at last month’s Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce-sponsored 2007 Infrastructure Summit.

“[A VMT] probably wouldn’t go over well here,” said Bouchard. “And it could be very expensive when you go to pay your registration.”

Letourneau also said he didn’t like VMTs. “I don’t like penalizing how and where people drive.”

Interstate 93

Because bills won’t be sent to committees until January, Letourneau said he doesn’t have a priority list yet for the Senate Transportation Committee, but there is one bill that may have an impact on highway dollars.

The dissolution of the Maine-New Hampshire Interstate Bridge Authority — which controls the Sarah Long Bridge connecting U.S. Route 1 in Portsmouth to Kittery, Maine — and absorbing the bridge’s upkeep into the Department of Transportation is being proposed.

Some officials have said the Sarah Long Bridge is similar to the bridge that collapsed over the summer in Minneapolis, Minn. At 66 years old and one of the state’s “redlisted” bridges in need of repair, federal inspectors have said it is safe, but it is showing signs of age.

If the authority were dissolved, ownership of the bridge would then be shared equally by New Hampshire and Maine, with estimated annual maintenance and operations costs totaling $800,000 — $400,000 of which would become the Granite State’s responsibility.

Speaking for himself, Letourneau said he was against the bill. “They could go to a private entity or some investors to maintain the bridge,” he said.

Personally, he said, a priority for him is the widening of Interstate 93 between Salem and Manchester, currently bogged down in legal proceedings.

“The safety issue [on I-93] is huge,” he said. “With all the cars sitting there, it’s an air quality issue; it’s a quality of life issue.”

Bill Cass of the Department of Transportation said at October’s Infrastructure Summit that last summer’s ruling on the lawsuit brought by the Conservation Law Foundation against the Transportation Department and Federal Highway Administration found that the state failed to appropriately consider the effects of growth from increased traffic due to the 20-mile, $700 million project, especially secondary growth on side roads.

A new study will need to be conducted, said Cass, and is expected to take up to 12 months to complete.

The state Supreme Court also has allowed a number of park-and-ride projects along I-93 to continue as well as the Exit 1 interchange and associated bridges.

Letourneau summed up what New Hampshire’s legislators will face in the coming year’s infrastructure issues: “We are in crisis mode. We’re not crumbling, but if don’t do something, we will be. The whole system is bleeding badly.”