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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Going toll-free in Merrimack (at least partially)

MERRIMACK – Tim Foltz and Bob Schaller were in a festive mood Friday night, joking around, swatting bugs and checking their watches every few minutes, then gazing over at traffic entering the F.E. Everett Turnpike southbound from Bedford Road.

Finally, as the moment they’d been waiting for arrived, the men and a couple of other onlookers raised a thumbs-up and let out a few whoops as several motorists who happened to be in the right place at the right time earned a place in state and Merrimack transportation history. ...

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MERRIMACK – Tim Foltz and Bob Schaller were in a festive mood Friday night, joking around, swatting bugs and checking their watches every few minutes, then gazing over at traffic entering the F.E. Everett Turnpike southbound from Bedford Road.

Finally, as the moment they’d been waiting for arrived, the men and a couple of other onlookers raised a thumbs-up and let out a few whoops as several motorists who happened to be in the right place at the right time earned a place in state and Merrimack transportation history.

While it’s rare indeed that a pair of turnpike exit toll plazas find themselves at the center of a celebration, busy family men like Foltz and Schaller, and many other residents of the northern reaches of Merrimack, had a perfectly legitimate reason to cheer Friday night’s closure of the Exit 12 toll booths.

“For us, it’s literally 10 bucks a week, minimum,” Foltz said of the money that he, his wife and daughters have handed over to toll collectors or accumulated on their EZ-Pass accounts over the years.

“Think about it this way,” Schaller said, referring to the vast majority of drivers outside of Merrimack who don’t fully grasp the concept of having to pay a toll at all three of Merrimack’s Everett Turnpike exits.

“Every time you leave your driveway, you pay 35 cents, and every time you come home, you have to pay another 35 cents,” Schaller said, his figures reflecting the 30 percent discount on the normal 50-cent toll that New Hampshire EZ-Pass users get. “That’s what it’s been like for us all these years.”

Since the passage into law on May 20 of Senate Bill 367, legislation geared toward funding major improvements and expansion projects on state roads and highways which also included a 4 cents per gallon gas tax increase and the removal of the Exit 12 toll booths, plenty of Merrimack residents have said they feel like a little bit of justice has been delivered their way.

Some considered the decision a “one-third down, two-thirds to go” proposition, referring to Merrimack’s two toll plazas at Exits 10 and 11.

Leading up to May’s long-awaited passage of Senate Bill 367, retiring state Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, convinced colleagues to attach to the bill a clause closing the Exit 12 plazas.

Bragdon pointed out, and state officials agreed, that the increased traffic on Exit 10, which funnels traffic into Merrimack Premium Outlets, will more than offset the loss of revenue from Exit 12.

Many people who own businesses on Daniel Webster Highway in the area of Bedford Road praised the plan to close the plazas, saying the move lifts a burden that they carried for years.

“It’s about time they got rid of them,” said JoAnn Costa, the owner of Axel’s Food and Ice Cream at 608 Daniel Webster Highway, about 100 yards south of Bedford Road. “The tolls are unfair to the people in Merrimack, and they hurt our business,” she said.

Meanwhile, state DOT officials indicated that the toll takers who tended the Exit 12 booths are being assigned elsewhere. One of them, a woman named Pauline who gave only her first name, said Friday she will continue working but wasn’t yet sure which booth she’d be assigned.

“Long day … I just want to get home to my husband and dogs,” she said as she untied her reflective vest and climbed into her car.

A DOT spokesman said they chose the 9 p.m. closing time Friday because that’s when toll takers’ shifts end for the day. Between then and 5 a.m., lightly-traveled on- and off-ramps, like those in Merrimack, switch to an “exact change only” honor system. At least one EZ-Pass lane is always open.

As closing time approached, DOT workers and state police set up cones to detour traffic through one lane while road crews worked to remove signposts from the booths. In their place, crews set up temporary electronic message boards reading “free tolls” and “no stopping” on both sides of the turnpike.

The buildings themselves will remain for the time being as state highway officials move forward with scheduling their demolition. That is expected to happen around mid-September, according to David S. Smith, assistant state turnpike administrator.

“You’ll see the plazas there for another two months or so as we put the (construction) project out to bid and choose the contractor,” Smith told members of the Merrimack Town Council at their July 17 meeting.

A timeline of the project shows all bids must be received by Aug. 7. If the governor and executive council approve the roughly $570,000 project, construction will begin Sept. 18 with a target completion date of Dec. 12, Smith said.

The plaza’s office buildings will eventually come down as well during the project, he said. In the meantime, all the vacant buildings will be secured and gated and monitored by state and local police.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).