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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Charlie Arlinghaus- The great turnpike robbery of 2009


The transportation plan endorsed by the Senate budget writers and Gov. John Lynch is a radical scheme that ends the requirement to spend toll revenue maintaining toll roads. That requirement would be ended so tens of millions of dollars each year can be transferred out of the turnpike fund. It is the most cynical of public policies and the worst of the three options currently before policy makers.

For decades, New Hampshire's transportation revenue has been among the most safeguarded in the nation. One of the most important elements in that protection is the state's turnpike system and the turnpike fund.

The public is naturally quite cynical about tolls. Travel across the country and people will point at bridges and say "they told us that bridge would only have a toll until it was paid off, but of course we still have it."

New Hampshire built toll roads and faced the same cynicism, but we tackled it in a common-sense way. Tolls are not meant to be a clever way to tax you to fund general operations. We created a separate fund for the toll roads called the turnpike fund. Revenue from tolls can be spent only on the state's 93 miles of toll roads and their 159 bridges.

Because of our safeguards and transparency, the average citizen is less hostile to toll increases than to hikes in other taxes, especially the gas tax. Whatever they raise has to be spent on the road that has the toll booths. I know exactly where that money is going.

That acceptance of tolls is exactly what has put us at risk. Clever policy makers have realized that tolls can be used to raise more money for other purposes if they can find a way to pull the money out of the turnpike fund.

The primary tool to take tens of millions of dollars each year out of the turnpike system is something called "aggregation," and it's a bad idea. Today, your toll is restricted to use on the toll road. The governor and the Senate have proposed adding all the interstate highways and Route 101 into the turnpike system, but not putting toll booths on them. They plan to take the money collected on the 93 miles of toll roads and spread it over 314 miles of roads.

In the past, the people of Merrimack used to be able to take some solace in the idea that their dreaded toll booths were at least paying for the F. E. Everett Turnpike on which they drove every day. If the new scheme is adopted, they'll know that a portion of their tolls will be sent all over the state. The plan would raise all tolls and spend the extra money on non-toll roads.

In addition to this ridiculous toll divorce, we're buying a mile and a half of highway from ourselves so the turnpike fund can transfer $15 million a year of toll money in the general highway fund to spend anywhere in the state.

These two schemes have only one purpose: to get around the restriction on tolls and use toll dollars all over the state. The turnpike fund will exist only as a sad joke and a reminder of what fiscal integrity used to look like.

It's no wonder that Candace Bouchard, Democratic chairwoman of the House Public Works Committee, wrote that putting aggregation into the budget without a full discussion of the policy consequences would be "simply wrong." She was joined by all 18 members of the committee from both parties.

I don't want to minimize the long-term needs of the system. New Hampshire fixes more red-list bridges each year than it adds, but the current 10-year plan only deals with 87 of the 137 bridges currently on the red list. Both the current plan and the governor's plan have us on a 16-year repaving schedule, which may be too long.

A House-proposed plan would address all of the long-term issues and offer safeguards to taxpayers, but would raise the gas tax significantly. Whether that may become necessary in the future or not, it won't happen this year. In a surprisingly forceful statement for him, the governor has said he'll veto the budget if any gas tax increase is in it. He rightly thinks that adding to people's tax burden in the currently economy is a mistake.

If he believes a nickel gas tax increase is a bad idea in this economy, wouldn't the same be true for a 50-cent toll increase? (And what about the other half dozen tax increases he has not opposed?)

I think it would be sensible to follow the suggestion of Rep. Bouchard and the entire House Public Works Committee and spend the next two years discussing the state's real transportation needs and the policy implications of various proposals. However, we should be able to agree that the governor's plan to pillage the turnpike system can be the first thing killed in the budget conference.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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