Looks like bumpy roads ahead if pols don’t fuel NH highway fund

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The New Hampshire Legislature often is like turning a huge ship. It has to be done very slowly.

Yes, the 424 members of the General Court have acted quickly on some issues like the bankruptcy of Public Service of New Hampshire years ago, but not often.

The House last week and this week will put off one of the major issues it needs to address and has needed to solve for some time: diminishing revenues for the state Highway Fund which pays for state road and bridgework.

For years, the state has made the fund solvent with baling wire and string, like selling sections of road to the turnpike system, but the sleight-of-hand is about to be exposed.

The House Public Works Committee voted 17-3 to approve Plaistow Rep. Norm Major’s House Bill 1649 to establish a road usage fee to capture some of the Highway Fund revenue lost due to fuel efficiency and electric-powered vehicles through the gas tax.

In committee the bill had unanimous Republican support as member Rep. John Graham, R-Bedford, a bill sponsor, urged his colleagues to face the music if they want their roads and bridges maintained.

However, when the bill went before the full House last week, support from both parties was weak. An attempt to table the bill failed on a 206-120 vote, while approving it failed on a 173-144 vote, before a voice vote killed the bill.

Neither party wanted responsibility for raising vehicle registration fees in an election year or to appear to be targeting auto owners who “do the right thing” and purchase hybrid, electric or fuel-efficiency vehicles.

Major’s bill would have charged a road usage fee based on a vehicle’s miles-per-gallon rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The more efficient the vehicle, the higher the fee until it reaches $150 for vehicles that do not burn fossil fuel.

Major’s proposal has not changed much in the last five or six years but has yet to pass the House.

This week lawmakers will also act on House Bill 1650, which also attempts to refill the Highway Fund, but uses a vehicle’s weight and miles driven to set the usage fee.

The House Public Works Committee voted 15-4 to recommend the bill be killed, saying there were too many issues that needed to be addressed or were unworkable.

There is no reason to believe the fate of HB 1650 will be any different than HB 1649 and another two-year session will pass without lawmakers recharging the Highway Fund with enough revenue to fill the reservoir.

Last year the fund collected $226.4 million but garnered $249 million in 2008.

More Problems Ahead

When lawmakers raised the gas tax on July 1, 2014, from 18 to 22.2 cents a gallon — the first increase since 1991 — it dedicated most of the new money to finishing the I-93 expansion project between Salem and Manchester.

Lawmakers were able to do that by moving some GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles) bonds for the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge project in Portsmouth and other projects to cover I-93 construction costs.

In order to dedicate most of the gas-tax money increase to the expansion, the state also used a federal low-interest loan program called Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act (TIFIA) for rural areas. The state received a $200 million loan to finance work on other roads and bridges and block grants to cities and towns.

That amounted to about $33 million a year allocated to the non-I-93 expansion projects.

The loan is for 15 years and the state has begun paying back some of the money, but the debt service increases from about $2.1 million a year to $23.4 million in fiscal year 2027 and continues for eight years.

That is money that will have to come from the Highway Fund and that will curtail a lot of other work once those payments begin unless something is done to increase the revenue.

The sooner something is done the more likely the Department of Transportation does not fall further behind on maintenance work and may begin to address the backlog that has been building for some time.

While the average driver appreciates good roads and bridges, commerce depends on it including the pervasive tourism industry.

Who wants to travel on pot-holed and frost-heaved roads?

Bipartisanship

The House Technology, Science and Energy Committee acted on yet another net metering bill before Gov. Chris Sununu’s State of the State speech where he urged bipartisan cooperation.

The committee’s work would appear to be a test for the governor on his pledge as the bill the committee crafted contains the key provisions in two of the three bills Sununu touted earlier this session as a way to embrace clean energy development, while holding the line on electric rates.

While there have been bipartisan attempts to expand what is called net metering, which allows small electric producers to sell their excess electricity to utilities, Sununu has vetoed every one including the latest last week again claiming it would raise the price for consumers, although lawmakers from both parties believed they had addressed his concerns.

“The proponents of this bill claim to have made a compromise, when in fact it still would result in hundreds of millions of dollars in higher electric rates for our citizens,” Sununu wrote in his veto message. “These costs would be felt most by low-income families and seniors in New Hampshire, and that is not acceptable.”

Earlier he touted three bills, all introduced by Republican House members, that concerned small producers like homeowners, larger producers like municipalities and limited how much a small producer could sell to a utility and required them to pay distribution costs to the electricity.

This week the House takes up House Bill 1218, sponsored by Rep. Howard Moffett, D-Canterbury, which expands the net metering program to larger producers of up to five megawatts of electricity.

“Just two days after Gov. Sununu vetoed Senate Bill 159, we went right back to work and I am encouraged with the renewable energy legislation passed by our committee today,” said Rep. Robert Backus, D-Manchester, committee chair. “After days of public hearings and multiple work sessions, we have crafted another compromise bill, combining three bills, two supported by Gov. Sununu to meet the governor more than halfway today.”

Moffett noted two of the bills were included in their entirety while the third was not included because it would have the legislature set the price of the excess electricity.

Instead the committee believes that responsibility should rest with the Public Utilities Commission, Moffett said, noting the bill also would have the PUC monitor the effects of increased electricity on residential rates, report to lawmakers annually and immediately begin proceedings if it sees an increase or cost-shifting.

“This bill offers not just municipalities but also New Hampshire businesses the opportunity to use their own home-grown renewable power to lower energy costs by using zero-cost fuel and avoiding unnecessary transmission charges,” Moffett said, “while protecting our environment by promoting a shift to small-scale, clean distributed energy resources.”

However, the reaction of the Republican members of the committee would indicate, the fate of HB 1218 may be same as the other net metering bills.

“While the aforementioned additions do make some modest reforms to the original bill, they do not address the major problem with this bill and all the net metering legislation offered over the past few sessions,” said committee member Rep. Michael Vose, R-Epping, “namely, setting the price for net metering credits too high.”

Bipartisanship is a precious commodity in the legislature this session.


Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com