Attack of the Turnspike

It’s been a decade since New Hampshire increased turnpike tolls statewide, which means that the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Turnpikes has awakened, like the mythical Kumbhakarna, ravenous and ready to devour more of your money.

Kumbhakarna was (is?) a Hindu demon cursed to sleep for long stretches. Periodically he would awaken, eat everything in sight, then fall asleep again. The Bureau of Turnpikes can be counted on, Kumbhakarna-like, to emerge every so many years and grab for whatever sustenance it can find.

This new proposal calls for a 25-50 percent toll increase statewide.

Why is it always a big increase (a Turnspike) rather than a series of small, gradual nudges upward? Does anyone plan ahead over there?

As is often the case with transportation projects, elected officials have mentioned “red-list bridges” as a reason to support this spike.

Yeah, about those bridges…

The proposal mentions red-list bridges only once. It states that the toll increases would allow the state to free up $32 million in federal funds slated for “Merrimack River Bridges Rehabilitation” and transfer it to 11 red-list bridge projects. Under the proposal, the DOT would begin the Merrimack River bridge project — in 2027 — and it can’t start without legislative approval. It requires moving Merrimack River bridges in Concord into the turnpike system, according to the proposal. That would free-up other money that could be used to fix other red-list bridges, but there is no guarantee that it would be used for that purpose.

What this means is that the toll hike is not about fixing red-list bridges. Those bridges are outside the turnpike system. The red-list bridges would be a small part of this plan and it doesn’t guarantee their funding. They would get $32 million (years from now) out of a plan that would raise $36 million a year in new revenue.

This hike is about permanently raising turnpike revenue. We know this because although the stated justification is to cover a spike in projects over the next decade, the toll hikes don’t expire in 2028.

We also know that the hike is not primarily about public safety. We know this because the department lists public safety as the primary benefit for only one set of projects, the reconstruction of Exits 6 & 7 in Manchester. There are serious safety concerns here, and the project should be accelerated. But a permanent 50 percent toll hike is not needed to do that.

The Exits 6 & 7 projects total $139 million and are scheduled to start after the $122 million widening of the Everett Turnpike from Nashua to Bedford, which is not as high a safety priority. If the DOT puts safety first, it should move this project ahead of the Everett Turnpike widening. It could defer other, less critical projects to cover the acceleration of this one. Instead, it’s asking for a permanent toll hike.

It should be no surprise that the DOT intends to divert millions of dollars from this proposed toll hike to… “alternative modes of travel such as transit, bike, rail.” The DOT wants to raise turnpike tolls in part to spend $27 million from 2020-2028 to encourage people to ride bikes and trains instead of drive on the turnpikes.

Bostonians who clog the Hampton and Hooksett tolls on Columbus Day and Memorial Day weekends are not going to opt to bike to Lake Winnipesaukee or The Flume unless the North Koreans, Russians, eco-warriors or asphalt-hating space aliens reduce our roads to rubble, crush all automobiles, and torch every last drop of fossil fuel on earth.

Unless the $27 million funds a first strike by any of these groups, it will be squandered on ineffective, feel-good projects.

A look at Bureau of Turnpikes revenue reports shows that the turnpike system’s revenue is healthy and growing (a 5.1% increase from 2015-2016).

In sum, this toll increase is neither essential nor justified. But it reportedly has the support of a majority of the Executive Council. Red-list bridges, you know. Kumbhakarna is a formidable foe.