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Editorial: Road Work Ahead; N.H. Needs to Invest More

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a state official in charge of an executive department must be in want of money. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the man in charge of New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation would like a bigger budget. What’s surprising is that Commissioner Chris Clement has the good sense not merely to tell people that he wants more money but to show them why the state ought to invest more in its road network. He’s demonstrating a need, and the need is urgent. We hope the Legislature is listening.

Clement has been taking his message to local communities, Power Point presentation in hand. The facts are sobering. More than a third of the state’s roads, or some 1,500 miles, are in poor condition. There are some 140 structurally deficient state-owned bridges, and the number is expected to rise to 175 by 2016. The backlog of repairs is discouragingly long. The department projects a $48 million deficit by 2016, and has very little discretionary money for road maintenance and construction. There’s a manpower deficit, too: The department has a much smaller staff than 20 years ago, even though traffic has increased 30 percent during that time. Meanwhile, the price of asphalt has increased fourfold since 1992.

Eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of infrastructure ­— until a bridge closes or road crews slow the daily commute. Then motorists begin to grasp the importance of a well-maintained road network. Pavement, Clement argues, is the state’s most valuable asset after land and bridges, and that asset is under stress. New England’s harsh weather is partly to blame. The department annually spends about 40 percent of its maintenance budget, or $32 million in 2012, just to remove snow and ice and otherwise keep the roads passable in winter, an economic necessity.

Because resources are severely stretched, the department chooses to maintain high-volume roads in good condition, such as I-93, over less-traveled roads in poor shape. The reason is that, mile for mile, it costs half as much to repair good roads compared with poor ones. The commissioner estimates that $615 million would be needed to improve all state roads in need of repair. This does not include the $500 million needed to complete current turnpike projects.

In addition, many state and municipally owned bridges are deemed structurally deficient, and some are closed because there aren’t the funds to fix them. Clement’s 10-year plan calls for $680 million to rehabilitate or replace 98 of the 140 state bridges on the so-called “red list.”

Begin to add all this up, and you’re talking real money. Money for roads comes from three sources: the federal highway fund, turnpike fees and the state highway fund, which consists of revenue from the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees. The Legislature will have to increase current taxes and fees or tap other sources. Last year, lawmakers tried and failed to raise the state gas tax, which hasn’t been adjusted since 1991 and stands at 19.6 cents a gallon (compared with 27 cents in Vermont, 45 cents in Connecticut and 50 cents in New York). This year, Sen. Jim Raush, R-Derry, is proposing an initial increase of 4 cents a gallon, which would yield $28 million annually. That’s something but not nearly enough to catch up with repairs. “Do I use all those funds and plug the operational hole in DOT and not fix roads and bridges … ?” Clement commented in an interview with editors at the Concord Monitor.

This is no way to run a road network. Clement is doing his job by describing current conditions, the construction work that needs to be done, and the economic rationale for keeping “good roads good,” as he puts it. Now it’s time for the Legislature to make some of the difficult choices about how to pay for improvements that are necessary not only to ensure public safety but also to keep the state moving forward.