Q&A with: Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray

Editor’s note: In order to bring you increased coverage, this article is an expanded interview from what appears in the print version.

While New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray has been at the center of the firestorm over the introduction of E-ZPass on the state’s turnpikes, she also has been in the news when it comes to several other issues at the top of the news, including recently passed legislation on eminent domain payments to businesses, bringing rail to New Hampshire and the allocation of federal dollars in the recently passed highway bill.

Q. We were one of the last states around here establish the E-ZPass system, so we should have learned and not have anything go wrong. What went wrong?

A. A couple of things. There was a real pent-up demand for E-ZPass because folks have seen it in the other states. Everybody said, “Wait a minute, I’m using E-ZPass in Massachusetts, I’m driving through a little tiny piece of New Hampshire on the way to Maine, where they accept it. Why can’t you get with the program?”

The second piece of was we got an awful a lot of press. It turned out that we had a very expensive marketing plan for free. I think the public said, “I don’t drive on the turnpike but once a year for $5, I might as well get one.” Then when the Senate and the House got together in budget and said, “We are [going to] sell them at actual cost, people said, “Oops, I better do it now.”

The last two days we sold transponders for $5 we sold 25,000 transponders. We had 214,000 transponders sold. Statistics would show you that we should have been selling 700 to 750 transponders a day. We were selling 3,500 a day. It created such an overwhelming demand for transponders, for customer service. They doubled the number of trained personnel at ACS (Affiliated Computer Services). They couldn’t train them fast enough.

Q. So the company did everything it could do and there was no fault?

A. They did everything they reasonably could do. Could they have maybe gotten more trained staff by robbing it from some other toll authorities? Possibility. They tried to be responsive. The vice president of the company called us: “We are customer service. We are customer satisfaction and we are real concerned about the press we are getting.” The magnitude, though, of 200,000-plus — in round numbers – transponders — we certainly didn’t hear from 200,000 dissatisfied customers.

Q. Some people might say they couldn’t get through.

A. And that is very true. One lady told me, “I called them. I got put on hold. I prepared, I cooked dinner. I ate dinner. I took a bath, and still they haven’t gotten back to me.” No question that that happened.

We have talked to ACS, and I’m going to formalize it in writing and tell them and I’m going to use examples like the lady who called and who cooked dinner and did all these things. Now that overwhelming demand is over, those things are inexcusable, and I will set out that customers will be answered in X amount of time. I think ACS will be receptive to it.

Q. Are those the major problems?

A. The transponders were not being shipped in the order that the orders were received. They have assured us that that is what they do. I have heard people who ordered their responders before me and haven’t got their transponders yet, so I don’t think it’s just the case that when you place order, it gets shipped. That will be one of our ground rules going forward.

But it hasn’t been an overwhelming failure, and it wasn’t an overwhelming success. What I would say was this was a complete of overhaul of the toll collection system. It wasn’t just a plug-in E-ZPass. All the hardware and software changed. We were able to do it with no loss of revenue. The equipment that we now have the toll attendants are very excited about.

Q. No loss of revenue?

A. Well, the fact that we purchased transponders at an average $25 apiece and sold them for $5 was a clear investment that we made that we didn’t recoup

Q. Whose idea was it to sell at $5? At any point was there pressure on you?

A. When E-ZPass system was literally weeks away, the governor and Executive Council voted — and it was not unanimous — that transponders should be sold for $5. The Legislature said, “Wait a minute.” So there was an almost a tug-of-war between the legislative and executive branch, with us just trying to implement. So that was pressure.

Q. I thought there was pressure from the governor as well.

A. I could see how it could be read that way. From a technical standpoint, there was a lot going on the last minute and then, “Oh, by the way, change the price.“ The governor and council were saying $5, the Legislature was saying $25. Which one do I think is right? I don’t care. Make up your mind so I know which way I am going

Q.Do you have your E-ZPass yet?

A. It has been sitting on my coffee table at home because I haven’t been out to a toll authority.

Q. How long did you have to wait for it?

A. Over a month.

Q.Really? I got mine right away. I guess reporters have more pull.

A. Apparently.

Q.Let’s talk about eminent domain and businesses being seized for less than the business is worth.

A. A change was made in business re-establishment payments. It used to be capped at $25,000, but but if you are going to move your business and you are going to re-letter your truck, notify all your customers, buy new stationery, business cards, maybe you have dedicated phone lines, so we asked the Legislature to change that payment to up to $100,000 and you don’t get it unless you spend it. I felt pretty strongly about that because I thought $25,000 was ridiculous.

The other commitment I’ve made was that we were going to improve training of our staff, which we did. We also are going to combine relocation assistance people with the ones who negotiate with you for the purchase, so that you deal with one, not a cast of thousands. You as the property owner get handed the appraisal. We used to hide them.

The most personal thing you can do is acquire someone’s property. That’s people’s blood sweat and tears, where they live or where they earn their living. We have to continue and look to do it better.

Q.Is being able to pay for rail and alternative transportation with highway funds an absolute no-no, according to the recent state Supreme Court decision?

A. It did not speak to buses, but it was absolute black-and-white when it came to rail. It was not unexpected, but I needed that black-and-white decision. We get a lot of “You could have spent money on rail projects, you just didn’t want to.”

Any form of future mobility has got to be more than highway. Aviation pays for itself. Rail right now doesn’t. Highways, some would say, are subsidized by the gas tax. I think it is a user fee. How are we going to pay for a rail? That’s a challenge.

In terms of getting to Nashua with rail, [there is] transit-oriented development. You can actually build a segment of your community that is not only glad to have the transit there, but is dense enough to support the transit. They will in return raise tax revenues that will allow them to support the rail extension. I applaud the city for its creativeness

Q.How would the state pay for rail then?

A. We could try to compete for general fund dollars. It is pretty hard to do that successfully. You are really entering into the food fight for those resources.

Q.So are we not going to get rail built in New Hampshire?

A. I don’t think there is the sense of urgency, the gridlocked highway system, the traveling in automobiles costing us $10 a gallon per gas that we have to do something different.

Q.The next check we get from Washington will come up short. Was there anything that could have been done by you or the congressional delegation?

A. New Hampshire has always done very well, which means we’ve been a target. I really thought that we were going to end up in the negative, that we would send $1 and get 95 or 92 cents back. We landed up with parity.

Did Vermont get a lot of special demonstrations? Yes it did. You had Senator Jeffords writing the bill from day one. When you are on the policy committee, you get to write the bill right out of the gate so that it helps what you view is your state’s interest and I think it is fair to say that Senator Jeffords did that for Vermont.

Some of the projects that Vermont let, I never would have asked for, like $5.8 million for a snowmobile trail.

The other thing nobody has talked about is that this bill is authorized for six years. Every year the money has to be appropriated.

Q.So you’re saying it isn’t over yet?

A. It’s not over yet. It’s like I’m promising your allowance, but Friday comes and I don’t have it.

Q.How is this going to affect major projects, like the widening of Interstate 93, the 10-year highway plan, the Mancheter Airport access road?

A. We are out there buying property for the access road. There are 800 parcels to buy. We can’t start construction until we own all the properties. We are hopeful to be under construction in a year and a half, two years.

The first thing that will go under construction is the bridge over the river. Projects we did get in reauthorization are a big help to I-93.

Q. How much of it will be for I-93?

A. About $8 million. I don’t think 93 is set back.

Q. What is set back then?

A. The entire 10-year plan. Every project is going to have to move out into the future at least by two or three years. The 10-year plan is a 14-year plan without inflation. It is now probably almost a 20-year plan, maybe 18.

The Executive Council is are going to be dismayed to see that things have moved out to the future. I don’t think they are going to be hugely surprised, but I think that it will be disappointing to everyone.

The Conway bypass won’t be set back. The Little Bay purchase, Newington to Dover, that has to go forward. That is choking the Seacoast. What’s going to happen is that smaller projects, instead of being done in ‘07, will be ‘08.

It’s the $2 million here or a million there. Fixing an intersection to add signals, straightening out a bad curve, a culvert, guard rail replacement. We have a lot of things that we do we called “statewides.” You are definitely going to see bumpy roads.

Q.How would you compare the Lynch administration to the last one?

A. The biggest difference is Governor Lynch exhibited a genuine caring for people. One of the first places he visited was our garage, and he just left such a positive feeling with the employees. That was a breath of fresh air.

We get to sit down at staff meetings, and that feels good because it is indicative of a more relaxed atmosphere.

Q. Without saying anything, you said something about the former governor. Any other words about that?

A. What I liked about Governor Benson is when you got a decision, it was clear. Was it always the right thing? Well, the jury is still out on one-way tolls, but we tried it. There are times when you are willing to add a little element of risk. I don’t think there is a perfect boss, because it is not us.

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