When N.H. Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement spoke to the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday morning, he said, “I’m not advocating raising fees or taxes, I’m just presenting the data.”
But the data itself — about poor roads and red list bridges — made a strong case for a hike in the state’s gas tax.
In order for a gas tax to happen, there has to be some political will to do it among lawmakers in the New Hampshire House and Senate. And there has to be some political will by Gov. Maggie Hassan, and the will of the people to — possibly — pay more at the pump in order to strengthen the infrastructure that takes them to and from their jobs and errands each day.
The roads and bridges carry Granite State manufactured goods to market elsewhere and bring the goods here to be consumed. They serve as a conduit to the tourists, which, this February vacation alone, was expected to bring $115 million to local businesses.
The current state tax on gas in the Granite State is 18 cents a gallon – a tax that hasn’t moved since 1991.
A Democratic state representative – David Campbell of Nashua – proposes in HB 617 to raise the gas tax by 15 cents: 4 cents in each of the next three years, then three cents in 2017.
One of the slides Clement used in his presentation is a history of the gas tax. It started as a penny tax on gas in 1923, and two fiscally conservative Republican governors in recent memory — Meldrim Thomson and Judd Gregg — approved increases in the gas tax.
Thomson approved a 10-cent-a-gallon hike and Judd approved two tax hikes — of 16 cents and 18 cents.
For Clement’s purposes, 1 cent of tax is equal to $8.3 million in money that would go right back to repairing, upgrading and maintaining the state’s network of 4,559 miles of roads and its 2,143 bridges.
“Whatever new money comes in, we’ll push right out,” he said.
You can get a look at Clement’s presentation – The Road to New Hampshire’s Future – here.
He described 19 percent of the roads (828 miles) as being in good condition, 44 percent (1,867 miles) are in fair condition, and 37 percent (1,565 miles) are in poor condition.
He said it would take $615 million to bring all poor roads up to good condition.
As for the bridges, there are 149 bridges on the so-called “red list” that deems them as unsafe. By 2016, without some funding, he expects that number to climb to 174.
He said it would take $680 million to rehabilitate or replace the current red list bridges.
Is there the political will to increase the gas tax, if not by the full 15 cents as proposed by Campbell then some compromise hike? Hassan has indicated a willingness to consider it, according to her statements Wednesday to an editorial board meeting with the Portsmouth Herald.
We’ll see on Wednesday, March 6, when the House is scheduled to take up HB 617.
If there isn’t some kind of hike, expect that the condition of state roads and bridges will get worse as time goes on.
“Anytime you defer maintenance, it’s a bill coming due,” he said.
There are video clips of Clement’s presentation to the chamber:
NH DOT Commissioner Clement on what needed for roads to stay OK 02-27-13
NH DOT Commissioner Clement on gas tax history 02-27-13
NH DOT Commissioner Clement on gas prices 02-27-13
Paul Briand is an editor with the Live Free or Die Alliance, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that encourages the discussion and analysis of New Hampshire politics and policies.