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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tolls nixed to pay for I-93 widening

CONCORD – State transportation officials have abandoned plans to seek a new tollbooth to help pay for widening of Interstate 93 from Salem to Manchester.

Transportation Commissioner George Campbell informed Gov. John Lynch on Friday afternoon that he would favor bonding or other options to deal with a $250 million shortfall in paying for the $800 million project.

“As the result of our research, I recommend against applying for a pilot toll program in Salem,” Campbell wrote Lynch.

The letter settles any consideration of the tollbooth option, and Lynch agrees with Campbell’s decision, said Lynch’s press secretary, Colin Manning.

“It’s clear there won’t be a tollbooth in Salem,” Manning said. “The governor had a lot of concerns about the question of a tollbooth in Salem and is in total agreement with this decision.”

Greater Salem residents and business leaders strongly opposed the toll option and warned it would lead to a flood of traffic diverting onto local roads.

Earlier this week, Lynch had defended Campbell’s considering the option, but stressed it was never his preference.

“I don’t believe it’s going to happen and I’ve never endorsed it,” Lynch said in Salem after attending a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser.

For months, Campbell’s staff had looked at whether to propose a $2 toll between Exit 1 on I-93 and the Massachusetts border.

“I’ve never supported the tolls, but the DOT is doing their due diligence to pay for what I believe should be one project,” Lynch said.

For months, Republican State Chairman John H. Sununu, a former Salem resident, has hammered Lynch for allowing the study to go on.

John Stephen, a Republican candidate for governor, rallied with toll opponents last week along with Sununu’s son, Chris, who is running this fall for the Executive Council seat held by Beverly Hollingworth, D-Hampton.

Campbell said one drawback to the toll was that restricted geography would prevent the state from using open-road tolling, a technology that in the future, will allow motorists with an E-ZPass transponder to travel at the speed limit through designated toll lanes.

In addition, it would ask these highway users to pay for a section of the I-93 project that already is financed through turnpike bonds.

Finally, Campbell said he has received assurances from Massachusetts officials that there will be no tollbooth on I-93 over the border in that state.

“Our plans at this time are to continue to evaluate funding options, including bonding, for fully funding the completion of the I-93 project from north of Windham to Manchester,” Campbell wrote.

A legislative commission has been meeting monthly to examine future financial needs of New Hampshire highways and will file a final report in December.

“The goal is to ensure that lawmakers in the next session will have a range of financial models to consider and act on to ensure an expedited completion of the I-93 project and sustainable funding for transportation projects statewide,” Campbell said.

Some national highway experts had doubts New Hampshire’s application for a toll would have succeeded, as there was room for only one slot in the federal program.

Former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, ended the last speculation about an I-93 toll five years ago by coming up with a plan to issue revenue-anticipation, or Garvee, bonds to support the project.

Soaring construction inflation and environmental delays since then pushed costs for the project more than $250 million higher and brought tolls back into discussion.

Administration officials said Campbell may try to revive his plan to free up more highway money by designating nearly 100 miles of roadway as part of the turnpike system, including parts of Route 101 to the Seacoast and Interstate 89, which runs from Bow to the Vermont border.

The House of Representatives soundly rejected this money swap, known as aggregation.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.