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Editorial: Road Map

Raise the N.H. Gas Tax

What’s the best way to pay for repairing and maintaining New Hampshire’s deteriorating road network? Raising the gas tax, say the chairmen of the Senate and House Transportation committees. A casino, according to Bob Sculley, president of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association.

We’re putting our money on the gas tax, because the state can’t afford to gamble on something as important to its economic well- being as safe, well-maintained roads and bridges. Casino gambling is as yet only a glimmer on the distant horizon in New Hampshire and even if it proves not to be a mirage this time — as it has so many times in the past — there’s no guarantee that it would produce the kind of money needed, given competing demands for cash.

That the argument in Concord revolves around how to pay for upgrading the roads at least demonstrates that no one is in serious doubt that vital infrastructure is in bad shape. As we have noted before, 1,500 miles of New Hampshire roads are rated in poor condition and a third of state-owned bridges need repair or replacement. Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement says the state highway fund faces a $48 million deficit by 2016, and last we knew, the state was still looking for $250 million to finish the widening of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire.

Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, and Rep. Candace Bouchard, D-Concord, who chair the Transportation committees in their respective chambers, are co-sponsoring legislation that would tie the gas tax to increases in the Consumer Price Index and review the rate every four years. This is projected to result in an increase of 4 cents for the coming fiscal year, producing about $31.5 million in additional money each year until it is recalculated for fiscal year 2019. It should be noted that New Hampshire’s gas tax now stands at 18 cents a gallon, the lowest in New England, and hasn’t been increased since 1991. Meantime, the price of asphalt has quadrupled.

There’s a lot not to love about the gas tax, primarily that it is regressive, hitting low-income drivers much harder in relative terms than their more affluent counterparts. But at least it bears some rough relationship to road use and provides an incentive to drive high-mileage vehicles and a disincentive to drive needlessly. And perhaps best of all from New Hampshire’s point of view, it captures revenue from out-of-state visitors for whom even a higher gas tax will seem a bargain. And we certainly don’t think that a 4-cent increase would put a dent in the number of visitors who come to the Granite State to buy their liquor and cigarettes and thereby do their part to sustain the state budget.

Unsurprisingly, the trucking industry is not on board, as Sculley’s suggestion indicated. That shouldn’t deter lawmakers from raising the tax, though, because industry associations exist to protect the interests of their members, not to promote sound public policy. An increase in the gas tax would cost truckers money, costs that they might or might not be able to pass along to their customers. But trucks undeniably play a big role in the deterioration of roads through wear and tear.

It appears that a 4-cent gas tax increase will clear the Senate Ways and Means Committee next week and go to the full Senate for a vote. The indexing of automatic future increases to the CPI looks to be in trouble, which is unfortunate, because it would take the issue off the table of periodic controversy. But if dropping it is w hat it takes to make a start on fixing the roads, so be it. It’s better than rolling the dice and doing nothing for another year.