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Column: Why we need to pass the gas tax

You may remember a few months ago when the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge in Portsmouth was out of commission. Seems as if they raised the center on a routine check, and it got stuck in a partial up position. It took maintenance crews, at great personal risk working in high winds and stormy weather, days to finally get it fixed.

During that time, Seacoast residents and tourists were left with only one bridge connecting Maine and NH, as the Memorial Bridge is closed. There were traffic jams and long delays. Goods and services could not get where they needed to be, so businesses suffered. People trying to get to the naval shipyard had a hard time of it, as the Long Bridge is the way to get there. And because the bridge couldn’t be raised, fuel tankers and other ships were stuck in the harbor, waiting to get in to deliver their goods. It was quite a mess.

The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge is a state bridge. It is red listed — meaning everyone knows it needs major repair to make it safe. In fact, it is the state’s No. 1 red listed bridge. It will cost the state $85 million to repair it. Too bad for Portsmouth, Kittery, and Seacoast residents and visitors — because the state has no money to fix it. None. As in zero.

New Hampshire has 493 red listed bridges — 140 state bridges, and 353 municipal bridges. Thirty of those red-listed bridges are located in Hillsboro and surrounding towns.

The other night I was driving home from a meeting in Deering, along good old Route 149. It was dark, and I didn’t see the pothole I hit. All I know is that my muffler was fine until I hit that pothole, and after it started to roar.

Come to find out, that five miles of Route 149 in Deering is included in the approximately 38 miles of local roads the Department of Transportation has classified as being in poor repair — major work required. All told in the state, 1661 miles of roads — 36 percent of them — are classified as in poor repair. This is up from 630 miles in 2000. We rank ninth worst nationally for the condition of our rural roads.

$780 later, I have a new exhaust system. I guess I shouldn’t mind too much, because NH has the lowest gas tax in New England. Surely what I save in gasoline taxes in a year must cover the cost of this repair. Surely it must? Read on.

Anyone who commutes to Massachusetts can testify to the traffic conditions at peak hours on I 93 — the state’s main transportation artery. Traffic jams and delays are the norm. We’ve been working on widening I 93 for years now. We need $250 million more to complete the project. Money the state does not have. The widening may never be completed.

The revenue New Hampshire uses to build and maintain its roads and bridges is raised by the “road toll” —commonly called the gasoline tax. (It is properly called a road toll, because it is paid by people who use the roads.) In fact, all revenue received from this toll is used for this purpose — with a portion going back to cities and towns to help them maintain their municipal roads and bridges as well.

New Hampshire’s gas tax is 18 cents a gallon, and has been since 1991, when gasoline cost $1.14 a gallon. Cars are more fuel-efficient now and use less gas. Inflation has happened. Adjusting for inflation, revenue from the tax actually declined 15 percent between 1991 and 2009. The tax is simply not bringing in enough money to fix what needs to be fixed.

We’ve ignored the problem for years. To continue to do so is irresponsible. Our crumbling infrastructure is hurting us economically.

You can see where I am going here. Rep. David Campbell (D-Nashua) filed HB 617, which as amended, raises the gas tax 4 cents per gallon in each of the next three years, and 3 cents per gallon in the fourth year, for a total increase of 15 cents by 2017. Estimates are this will increase revenue by just under one billion dollars over the next 10 years. All of it will be used for infrastructure repair. $800 million will go to the DOT to complete the widening of I 93, and to reduce the number of red-listed bridges and roads in poor repair. $200 million more will be sent to cities and towns to help them with their repair projects.

The Public Works and Highways Committee, with membership of 12 Democrats and 9 Republicans, voted unanimously to recommend passage.

The bill came before the House on Wednesday, and passed, with a vote of 207-163. Fifteen Republicans voted in favor, and 10 Democrats voted against.

How much will this increase cost you? In 2017, when the 15 cents is fully phased in, the average driver who drives 12,000 miles per year and gets 22.6 MPG will be paying an extra $79 a year.

And FYI, in a recent study by TRIP, the average NH driver now pays $323 a year in added car repair costs due to poor road conditions. This is up from $259 four years ago.

So much for our low gas taxes making up for cost of my new muffler. At this rate, it will take 10 years to recoup the cost.

Who knew?

Marjorie Porter, a Democrat, is a representative in Hillsborough District 1, which includes Antrim.

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