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Sunday, January 27, 2013

NH gas tax increase proposed to raise road, bridge repair funds

T he condition of New Hampshire’s roads will only get worse the longer it takes the state to find the money to fix them.

State Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, thinks he has found the answer. ...

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T he condition of New Hampshire’s roads will only get worse the longer it takes the state to find the money to fix them.

State Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, thinks he has found the answer.

Campbell has proposed a plan to raise $1 billion over the next decade through a 12 cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax and a $15 annual surcharge on auto and truck registrations.

The gas tax hasn’t been increased in 22 years, although a $30 registration surcharge was on the books for two years until the Legislature repealed it in 2011.

Campbell said even this ambitious answer wouldn’t fix all of the 493 ailing state and municipal bridges on New Hampshire’s Red List, but it would make a dent in them.

“It is fiscally irresponsible for any legislator not to vote for this,” Campbell said. “They have the facts at their fingertips. This becomes a much more expanded problem the longer we delay it. We’re already in danger of creating a problem so big that we’ll never be able to fix it.”

But Campbell’s plan may face a challenge, if not outright opposition, in the Republican-led Senate.

There, a plan is afloat to use the proceeds from legalized gambling to pay for transportation projects, and the first priority is the $250 million needed to complete the widening of Interstate 93 from Exit 3 in Windham to Manchester.

“We feel this is the best way to get this done,” said Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “It’s not a new tax or a tax increase, but a discretionary source of revenue.”

Morse wants the rest of the gambling profits to support more state aid to higher education, which wouldn’t address Campbell’s concerns about the condition of the worst roads.

Either way, Campbell’s proposal may stall in the Senate.

“There really is no level of interest in the Senate to raise any taxes now, especially among our Republicans,” he said.

The GOP holds a 13-11 edge in the Senate, while Campbell’s Democratic Party controls the House, 221-179.

Campbell said it shouldn’t be a choice between the two proposals, as he supports both.

“My view is the gas tax is the most appropriate way to pay for road and bridge work; it’s the classic user fee,” Campbell said. “I really think there is more support out there in the public than there is in the Statehouse. The people get it.

“Gambling also tends to be a cyclical revenue source that rises and falls; gas taxes are much more dependable.”

Supporters of both measures have a governor who isn’t fighting them.

Gov. Maggie Hassan campaigned in support of a single casino in the state, although she has yet to confirm whether it will become part of the two-year state budget she presents to lawmakers next month.

Hassan opened the door to supporting a gas tax as a candidate, but when her Republican opponent attacked the idea, she backed off.

Last week, Hassan would only say she’s trying to identify a way to raise revenue for roads and bridges that can be achieved politically.

Campbell’s proposal would increase the gas tax 4 cents a year for three years so that it would reach 30 cents a gallon by 2016. He would increase the registration surcharge $5 a year so that it would be $15 in three years.

To soften the blow for heavy truckers, Campbell said he’d suggest raising the tax on diesel fuel by less: 2 cents a gallon each year over three years.

This doesn’t mollify Robert Sculley, executive director of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association, who vows to fight any gas tax increase.

“There is no question this is the wrong time in this economy to be talking about raising taxes on working folks,” Sculley said. “This hits my people particularly hard.”

A 12 cent increase and registration fees would cost the average trucker $1,800 a year if his rig went 100,000 miles at 6 miles to the gallon, Sculley said.

Campbell said the average motorists driving 10,000 miles annually would face an increase of $75 from the gas tax and registration surcharge.

“It’s important to remember that gas prices do not represent taxes at the pump,” Campbell said. “We’ve got lower taxes than our neighboring states, but often gas prices here are higher.”

The New Hampshire gas tax, at 18 cents, is among the 10 lowest in the country and the lowest in New England. Massachusetts is next at 21 cents, followed by Connecticut, 25 cents; Vermont, 26.7 cents; Maine, 30 cents; and Rhode Island, 33 cents.

The federal gas tax, unchanged since 1991, is 18.4 cents a gallon.

Campbell met privately with Hassan last week to pitch the idea and has been making the rounds with business groups trying to build private-sector support.

“This has the potential to become a real barrier for us economically,” Campbell said. “New Hampshire was always known as a place with great roads, but we’re still kind of living with that reputation despite the reality.”

The numbers aren’t pretty:

All roads: 4,559 miles. About 34 percent are rated as being in poor condition and another 40 percent are only fair.

State roads: Only 19 percent are in good condition, with 37 percent poor and 44 percent fair.

Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement has yet to endorse raising the gas tax, but has urged lawmakers to be unafraid to talk about raising revenue.

Last week, Clement told Campbell’s House Public Works and Highways Committee that just to keep state roads in their current shape, his agency needs another $12 million a year.

Unless the state spends $15 million more, the number of red-listed state bridges, now at 148, will inch up every year, to 170 in five years and to 200 in 10, he said.

“That’s getting worse and worse and worse every year, because we’re not investing in the system,” Clement said.

The state would get $8.3 million more each year with a penny increase in the gas tax.

“I’ve looked at all the cold-region states where weather takes such a toll on infrastructure, and the only state with a lower gas tax than ours is Wyoming,” Campbell said.

“We’re behind the curve, and in this case, that’s not a good thing.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).