While officially the discussion was about using toll credits for highway and transit projects, underlying it was the persistent debate about road building and maintenance and whether or not we should be working on commuter rail plans to connect the southern tier of the state to Boston.
For our area, the debate seems relative to a part of the state that can seem distant from our daily world. Some would say the dialogue is irrelevant with a lack of money for basic highway maintenance and no money for mass transit projects.
The reality is that as a public policy New Hampshire is largely committed to supporting roads as our primary surface transportation system. And for most of the state, that is the only option. But to have a strong, vibrant and competitive economy in the future, rail options need to be considered.
Meetings of the Capital Budget Overview Committee are called by the chair, Representative Gene Chandler (Bartlett), periodically to review and approve funding for various construction and maintenance projects.
The first item on the agenda at last Wednesday’s meeting was a request to release up to $300,000 from the Port Expansion Fund to allow the Pease Development Authority to do some environmental oversight, monitoring and analysis and possibly some waste disposal. This is part of a project to expand the Main Wharf at the Market Street Marine Terminal in Portsmouth.
During the engineering phase of this project, contaminated soils were discovered. This contamination can be traced back to a time prior to the state’s acquisition of the land in 1962. The money comes from the Port Expansion Fund with a balance of $9 million that was established to make improvements and expand the state’s port facilities. The request won quick approval.
The rest of the meeting focused on approvals of turnpike toll credits to match federal highway and transit grants. The general pattern over the years is that highway projects will be funded with 80 percent of the money coming from the federal government and 20 percent in matching funds from state resources. Like so much in state-federal financial relationships, there are exceptions and that is where turnpike toll credits come in.
Washington has an interest in making sure states maintain interstate highways as part of the federal commitment to support interstate commerce. To encourage states to maintain turnpikes, for example, they offer credits for the money states spend each year on these roads.
Those credits can be used for the state match for non-turnpike highway and transit projects. The amount of federal money spent does not change. But the state can use its toll credits instead of cash. That is important because there is no state money for matching some federal grants. The Department of Transportation’s request last week was to use about $2.7 million in toll credits to generate $15 million in federal money for projects.
One project will replace cable guardrails at various locations with steel post and beam guardrails and upgraded terminal ends on the guardrails on Route 12. The project begins in Walpole south of Bridge Street at the boat ramp and continues north for 14 miles ending just south of Ox Bridge Road in Charlestown.
This project is part of the state’s Highway Safety Improvement Program and is included in the current Ten-Year Transportation Improvement plan. The existing three-strand cable guardrails were originally constructed in 1959. The cable guardrail posts are rotten below ground, the cable is rusted and the height of the rail does not meet current safety standards.
Bids are due this week with the state estimating the cost at $1.1 million. It is anticipated this will be 90 percent federally funded and the state will match 10 percent using toll credits. Completion date is June, 2013.
The Route 12 project and the other highway projects were swiftly approved. There was some discussion but quick approval of engine overhauls of four of the state’s 22 motor coaches that are operated as Boston Express to serve travelers in the I-93 corridor. The engines are 12 years old and have a long history of problems. They will now be replaced. The cost: $225,000 and the state will use $45,000 in toll credits as its match.
The most discussion focused on a request to accept $2.5 million with a state match of $500,000 for a three year trial of the Portsmouth-Manchester "East-West Express" bus service. The goal is to move people from the Seacoast to Manchester and especially to the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. Legislators told of their own experiences taking buses to Boston Logan Airport rather than fly out of the Manchester airport.
As all too frequently happens, the discussion devolved into the merits of buses and expanded highway construction vs. having a plan to use rail service in the future. Rail opponents fear committing to rail because they believe it will drain money away from highways and any rail subsidies will be costly to the state. The legislator who introduced the bill last year that passed and gives the overview committee the power to approve the use of toll credits for highway and transit projects, John Graham (Bedford), said he did it to deter actions that favored rail projects.
After lengthy discussion, the committee approved using toll credits for the "East-West Express" but the debate on rail vs. highways will go on.