- Associated Press - Monday, December 4, 2017

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) - Supporters of a New Hampshire proposal to increase tolls statewide for the first time in a decade suggest that additional spending could lead to safer roads, while opponents worry that it is an unnecessary expense that could hurt some transportation businesses.

The Department of Transportation is seeking to increase toll rates by 50 percent in March to bring in an additional $36 million a year for major turnpike projects. It says that 54 percent of the increase would be shouldered by out-of-state drivers.

Under the proposal, the rates in Hooksett and Bedford would increase from $1 to $1.50, Dover and Rochester tolls would increase from 75 cents to $1, and Hampton tolls would go from $2 to $2.50. Merrimack’s ramp tolls would see no increase and be eliminated in 2020. Drivers with E-ZPass devices would continue to get discounts.

Several dozen elected officials, business owners and residents came out to the first public hearing on the proposal Monday night in Portsmouth. Many attended despite the fact that a member of the executive council, which was supposed to take up the proposal Wednesday, is requesting that it be removed from the agenda and reintroduced next month, according to the Concord Monitor.

Among those speaking in favor of the proposal were officials from Dover, Merrimack and other municipalities along Interstate 93, which is in line for several big projects that would benefit from the additional funding. The projects include a widening from Interstate 89 to Interstate 393; Exit 6 improvements and Everett Turnpike widening in Manchester; Everett Turnpike widening in Nashua-Bedford; and Exit 7 reconstruction in Manchester.

They said the improvements would cut down on traffic fatalities and spur companies that depend on the often congested roadways to expand their businesses. Others, like Democratic state Rep. Peter F. Somssich, said he supported the toll hike so a Portsmouth neighborhood in his district would get the sound barriers they had been promised several decades ago.

“Somebody will say we are taxing people to go to work. No we are not,” he said. “We are providing a better, safer road to get to work quicker. Somebody has to pay for it.”

Opponents complained that the hike amounted to a tax that would hit lower- and middle-income residents hard. Others worried that it would make it harder to attract businesses to the state and possibly prompt others, especially small transport and trucking companies, to leave.

“Unlike large national companies, we will not be able absorb a 50 percent toll hike without significant impacts,” said Tim Howe, the general manager of City Fuel.

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