By Mike Marsh
One of the major highway projects going on in New Hampshire today is the work on Memorial Bridge that connects Portsmouth to Kittery. The state just received a quote on this work for $59 million. Eight years ago, the price for the same work was fixed at $10 million. This is not an example of a bloated state bureaucracy at work- the project is being done by a private company and this was the lowest bid the state received. Rather, it is clear evidence of how dramatically costs to build and maintain our states infrastructure have risen over the past 8 years. And it is exhibit A in why New Hampshire needs to rethink how we pay for construction and maintenance of our roads and bridges.
New Hampshire’s major revenue source for state highway and bridge work is the gasoline tax. It is sobering to compare how gas taxes have fared compared to highway costs. In fiscal 2000, the state collected $116 million in gas taxes, so we would have been able to pay for more than 11 Memorial Bridge-sized projects that year. In 2008, the state collected $137 million in gas tax money, but because of cost increases this would barely cover the cost of two projects the size of the Memorial Bridge. The Memorial Bridge is not an isolated example. Throughout the state, highway construction and maintenance costs are rising rapidly because of the increase in cement, steel, and petroleum prices, while the money to pay for them is flat.
Because of the lack of money, the state’s infrastructure planning process is in disarray. Our ten-year construction plan grew to be more than 35 years long because of costs increases before it was pruned last year. Regional planning commissions are told not to bother submitting new road projects for state funding, as the money simply isn’t available. Needed improvements don’t get scheduled, and scheduled projects get delayed. One example is in my town of Greenland, where a dangerous intersection on state Route 33, notorious as an accident site, cannot be made safer because the money to do so simply isn’t available.
Not only is New Hampshire not able to begin new projects, we are deferring critically needed maintenance on existing roads. The state has cut the number of miles of road that are slated for annual surface work by as much as 75% to save money. Of course this is a false savings, akin to cutting your monthly expenses by not changing the oil in your car. It will work for a while, but ultimately ends up costing you more. The state is in the same situation, as delayed maintenance causes roads to deteriorate faster.
The reason we cannot undertake new projects or properly maintain existing roads is simple- the last time we increased the gas tax was 1992. Since then general inflation increased costs by 60% and inflation in road construction costs has increased at twice that rate. Yet state political leaders have pretended that any increase in the gas tax, even one that would just keep up with inflation, is somehow a tax increase and unacceptable. This is nonsense. It’s time we stopped pretending inflation doesn’t affect government work.
The legislature needs to take a hard look at what it will cost to rebuild our state road and bridge system, and be prepared to raise the gas tax to pay for this. A good start is to add 6 cents per gallon to the tax. This would cost the average driver about $35 per year, and would raise roughly $50 million. Additional increases could be phased in later if needed. Reasonable people will accept this tax increase if they understand that the money is to be used only to rebuild our road system and that Governor Lynch will make sure it is well-spent.
The state should also take a second look at registration fees for heavy trucks. A single 40-ton truck does more damage to a road than 9,000 cars, yet we have increased the registration fee for these trucks only once in the past twenty years. Heavy truck drivers should pay their fair share of the cost of highway maintenance through a modest vehicle registration fee increase.
If we fail to take action now to pay for our roads, we will see continued deterioration in their condition. And we will have only ourselves to blame. We should not pass on to the next generation a road system that is worse than the one we inherited because we are not prepared to pay the real costs of maintaining it.