Bill to eliminate Merrimack tollbooth killed by NH House

CONCORD – The most promising bid to close one of three ramp tollbooths in Merrimack off the F.E. Everett Turnpike died before the House of Representatives on Feb. 6.

But the legislative author of the upcoming 10-year highway plan said removing a single Merrimack exit could be part of a global strategy to widen and modernize that part of the turnpike system.

The House voted 201-72 to kill a Senate-passed bill (SB 3) to eliminate the ramp tolls that charge drivers to get off northbound and get on southbound at Exit 12 (Bedford Road).

“Merrimack is unfairly paying more than anyone else in New Hampshire to drive on the highway, and that is wrong,” said state Rep. Jeannine Notter, R-Merrimack.

Rep. Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack, said the town is the only one where residents can’t get on or off the turnpike without paying for the trip.

“The ramp at Exit 12 costs more to keep open than it takes in,” Peterson said. “They have already paid their fair share and yours.”

Even some legislators unaffected by the Merrimack tolls rallied to the legislation.

Rep. Dudley Dumaine, R-Auburn, said he drives the same distance from Concord to his home and pays no toll.

“It sounds to me like Merrimack is being over-tolled compared to the rest of the state,” Dumaine said.

House Public Works and Highways Committee Chairman David Campbell, D-Nashua, said his panel felt that this piecemeal change in the turnpike system was ill-advised.

The state faces many decisions about the F.E. Everett Turnpike, Campbell said, such as whether to move the mainline toll in Bedford, how to pay for widening from Bedford to Nashua, whether to offer regular commuters who use E-ZPass a discount, and the Merrimack issue.

“This is not something we want to turn away; it is something we want to talk about,” Campbell said.

The Legislature will debate and adopt changes to the 10-year highway program during this session, and Campbell is authoring proposals for Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Campbell invited Merrimack lawmakers and local officials to attend an afternoon-long briefing on the turnpike session before his panel next Tuesday.

Last spring, Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement endorsed the concept of giving all commuters a discount on toll charges after 30 trips a month.

As for the traffic on this stretch of turnpike, Department of Transportation officials told Campbell’s committee recently that it was down 1.6 million vehicles compared to a year ago.

Toll revenue from the mainline plaza at Bedford is off by $1.9 million a year.

Tolls paid for at the three ramp tolls in Merrimack, however, were up about $195,000 for 2013 over 2012.

Campbell said that’s because of a large volume of cars getting off at Exit 10 to go the Merrimack premium outlet mall.

As for the loss of toll money in Bedford, DOT officials said there’s been greater diversion off the turnpike in both directions for those using the Manchester Airport Access Road.

Merrimack town and state officials accepted building the three ramp tolls in 1989 in exchange for nearly $50 million of road improvements made to promote industrial development in Merrimack during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, said since then, there have been major turnpike upgrades in Nashua, Manchester and Concord, and none of those cities have had new tollbooths to pay for them.

Turnpike Administrator Chris Waszczuk said there is $22 million in long-term bonds still to be paid off for the Merrimack upgrades between now and 2022.

Last year, Bragdon authored the bill when he was president of the state Senate, and the upper chamber overwhelmingly embraced it.

Bragdon’s original bill would have done away with ramp tolls at all three drive-offs in Merrimack – Exits 10, 11 and 12 – but the author agreed with Senate budget experts to limit the change to one toll station, as it had the least financial impact on the system.

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