Around lunchtime on May 20, Gov. Maggie Hassan stood at the still-under-construction southbound bridge at Exit 3 of Interstate 93 and ceremoniously signed off on the state’s 4.2-percent gas tax increase.
The new law, which will go into effect July 1 and change the gas tax from 18 to 22.2 cents, has critics groaning that it will hurt motorists who are already dealing with gas prices hovering around $3.60 per gallon for regular and closer to $4 per gallon for diesel.
But supporters are looking forward to speedier repair of the state’s ailing roads and highways and say it could save drivers money in the long run.
Once it became apparent that the New Hampshire Department of Transportation would likely be receiving additional revenues, teams of engineers were created to prioritize projects as quickly as possible, said Bill Boynton, public information officer for DOT.
“We are approaching this how we respond to a major storm, like Irene or the stimulus funding of 2007. It essentially doubled the amount of work [that will] happen this summer,” Boynton said. “We are primed and ready to go.”
The DOT expects approximately $23 million a year more as a result of the gas tax increase.
Forty-two percent of the additional revenues will go toward the widening of Interstate 93 project. The total cost of the project is $769 million. Of that, $352.8 million — 60 percent of the work — is active or complete. But the northern section, from Exit 3 in Windham to the Interstate 293 split in Manchester, previously had not been funded.
“This will make that possible,” Boynton said. “We had no way of funding that before, so we were facing the prospect of completing what we are doing now and not going any further.”
Another 25 percent of the anticipated additional revenue will be used for repairing secondary state roads during the next two fiscal years. Many of the projects chosen were scheduled to get underway two years from now. The DOT expects to spend an additional $13.2 million for new pavement. Another $12 million will be devoted to reconstruction and rehabilitation of 27.3 miles of road.
“These are what we call wicked poor roads,” Boynton said. “You can't just throw new asphalt on them. You have to grind up old asphalt, and add in some cases add new stone.”
From a public perception point of view, assigning more funds and attention to roads that are still in decent shape as opposed to the “wicked bad” roads may seem counterproductive, but Boynton said it’s more cost effective to approach roads this way.
Costs reach $750,000 per mile to pave the worst roads and only about $50,000 to $70,000 to pave roads that are relatively in-tact. So the strategy is a way to avoid extreme costs further down the line, Boynton said. The additional funding only begins to dig into the 1,500 miles of the state’s 46,000 miles of road is in poor condition.
“It’s not unlike a car or house,” he said. “As long as you are keeping in good condition, you are not spending big money.”
That leaves cities and towns 33 percent of the additional gas tax revenue to repair local roads and bridges owned by municipalities. Twelve proposed additional projects for fiscal year 2015 include bridge rehabilitations on Elm Street in Manchester and on Manchester Road in Amherst, projects which, without the gas tax increase, wouldn’t have been addressed until fiscal year 2017.
“People will notice additional work,” Boynton said. “There’s no question about it. This will be a big help.”
Driving on the 34 percent of the state’s major roads that are in poor or mediocre condition costs New Hampshire motorists $358 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs, about $338 per motorist, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group.
“It’s sort of like, you pay me now or pay me later,” Boynton said. “And it’s much more cost-effective to put money into the system than pay it later.”