Toll increase hearing draws crowd on icy night

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A DOT staffer presents plan during a Wednesday night meeting at City Hall. Photo/Laura Aronson

MANCHESTER, NH — More than 50 people braved the cold, and icy downtown sidewalks to attend a hearing Wednesday night about highway toll increase. The increases would fund a stepped-up schedule of road work, shaving four years off the schedule for Exits 6 and 7 on Interstate 293.

The Executive Council hosted the hearing. Councilors Chris Pappas, Andru Volinsky, Russell Prescott, and Joseph Kenney were present. Several Department of Transportation staffers were there, and one presented the proposed changes.

Mayor Ted Gatsas and State Senator Andy Sanborn were against the proposal. Mayor Gatsas termed it “irresponsible,saying, “Now is not the time,” and asserting, “There must be different ways to do it.” Senator Sanborn criticized the decision-making procedure, saying it should be made by the legislature, and citing separation of powers. Several speakers criticized the timing of the hearings. The Executive Council is holding the hearings now so that the proposal can be passed to the legislature for a decision during the upcoming session, for inclusion in the 2018-2019 budget.

Several Manchester elected officials spoke in favor of the proposal. State Sen. Lou D’Alessandro called the stretch of I-293 between Exits 5 and 7 a “deathtrap;”; Aldermen Dan O’Neill and Keith Hirschmann endorsed the plan, primarily for safety, but also for its economic benefits for business and tourism. Hirschmann represents Ward 12, where Exit 7 is located, and cited the new housing developments in the area and the safety needs of students at Manchester Community College.

Mike Skelton, president and CEO of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said the organization supports the proposal, adding “We don’t take this lightly.The Chamber supports it as a matter of public safety, and for its economic benefits. He ruefully said he often takes business managers on a tour when they are considering relocation here, but avoids I-293 during rush hour.

Ken Rhodes, VP of CLD/Fuss & O’Neill, an engineering firm in the Millyard, endorsed the proposal, citing its benefits to business growth there.

Local radio host Jon Hopwood compared the slow pace of highway work here with the speed he saw in California, and supported the proposal.

The Executive Councilors patiently listened to a long list of people commenting, many from surrounding towns. The meeting continued well past 9 p.m.

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