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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Many in toll-weary Merrimack doubt they’ll ever be able to drive the turnpike for free

MERRIMACK – You can’t blame people in Merrimack if they don’t hold out much hope for the latest toll-removal efforts bouncing around the Statehouse. In this case, familiarity breeds disbelief.

“We’ve heard it so often. We get excited, then remember that we’re heard it before,” said Karen Mills, an associate at Merrimack Jewelers in the Shaw’s Plaza adjacent to Exit 11. ...

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MERRIMACK – You can’t blame people in Merrimack if they don’t hold out much hope for the latest toll-removal efforts bouncing around the Statehouse. In this case, familiarity breeds disbelief.

“We’ve heard it so often. We get excited, then remember that we’re heard it before,” said Karen Mills, an associate at Merrimack Jewelers in the Shaw’s Plaza adjacent to Exit 11.

Mills lived in Merrimack when the F.E. Everett Turnpike’s tolls at Exits 10, 11 and 12 were introduced in 1980s as part of a $1 billion highway program, then moved away to Atlanta. She expected them to be gone when she returned to town a few years ago – but no such luck.

“I suppose this is the best chance we’ve had,” Mills said of the toll-removal bill supported by state Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, whom she has voted for. But she didn’t sound optimistic.

Still, she was more hopeful than Peggy Silva, an associate at the nearby Half-Price Cards store in the plaza.

“They’re never going to get rid of them,” she said flatly. And she thinks she knows why: “Because of the mall.”

In other words, Silva thinks the state can’t resist keeping the extra toll money paid by out-of-towners coming to the Merrimack Premium Outlets, which opened in June.

The Outlets certainly seems to be causing more people to hand their 50 cents to tollbooth operators.

Consider the week of Feb. 4-10: Total traffic was down at all the state’s toll plazas compared to a year earlier – except for the Everett Turnpike’s Exit 10, the usual route to Merrimack Outlets. At Exit 10, traffic was up by 14 percent.

Even without that boost, the multimillion-dollar income from Merrimack’s trio of tolls has been so irresistible that myriad efforts to mitigate the pain have failed in the Legislature and before the Executive Council. Lawmakers weren’t even budged by the “Merrimack Toll Revolt Day” in the summer of 2007, when residents were encouraged by town officials to pay their tolls with pennies as a protest.

Chris Mikaelian, who lives between Exits 11 and 12, would love to see the tolls vanish but he’s dubious.

“I suspect they won’t get rid of it,” said Mikaelian, interviewed at Supercuts barber shop in the plaza. “In these economic times, if I’m a legislator, it’s hard to encourage a reduction in revenues.”

“They’ll talk about it, but in the end,” he said with a shrug, “nothing happens.”

Although the tolls aren’t wildly expensive, they add up for locals.

Ryan Shanahan of Merrimack estimates that his family spends $45 to $50 each month on tolls, since he works as an irrigator in Massachusetts and his wife, Nicole, works as an office manager at Holloway Mercedes in Manchester.

“We get it going both ways,” he said ruefully.

Does Shanahan have hopes for the current toll-cutting proposal?

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said. “I never hold my breath with politics.”

Things have gotten slightly less annoying over the years. Using E-ZPass, as most people in town do, provides a 30 percent discount and less delay. Overall, slightly more than two-thirds of vehicles on New Hampshire highways use E-ZPass.

Even better for many, the opening in 2011 of the Manchester Airport Access Road has provided another toll-free route option toward the north.

“I save $20 a month with that,” said Danielle Atallah, an associate at Merrimack Jewelers, who lives in Manchester and no longer has to pay tolls both ways on her daily commute.

Such maneuvers are why the airport access road has complicated the toll picture. It is projected to cost the state as much as 30 percent of its toll revenues, up to $5 million annually, by allowing traffic to bypass the tolls.

A 2010 study considering ways to recoup that money considered 11 different tolling alternatives, including replacing the current setup with new tolls in Merrimack or at the state line in Nashua. State legislators have not acted on any of the proposals.

So for the time being, Merrimack residents will continue mentally juggling time vs. money when planning their travels.

“We’ll use Turkey Hill Road, or old Route 3 and get on the turnpike further down the road,” said Mills, listing common toll-avoidance maneuvers. “I’ll think: Do I have time? Is it worth the extra five minutes? Or am I in a hurry today?”

Staff writer Jake Berry contributed to this article. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).