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Editorial: Road Work Ahead; N.H. Falls Further Behind

The good news is that New Hampshire’s transportation funding crisis is a very solvable problem. The bad news is that it was a very solvable problem earlier this year when the Legislature chose not to solve it. We suppose that as the deficiencies in the state’s transportation infrastructure become ever more glaring, the chances that the Legislature will take action will improve, but that’s not a promising management strategy for a system that requires planning and regular investment.

There’s no doubt that those shortcomings are becoming ever more difficult to ignore. As staff writer Ben Conarck reported last week, Lebanon has one of the largest inventories of bridges in need of attention among communities in the state. Of the 60 or so bridges in the city, 13 are on the state’s or city’s red list, a designation meaning they have known structural deficiencies. That doesn’t mean they’re considered unsafe, but a red-listed bridge requires heightened monitoring. It also means a greater likelihood of nasty surprises such as the one in 2008, when deterioration of the bridge linking West Lebanon and White River Junction suddenly required a lowering of its posted weight limit. Until a temporary bridge was put up, truckers were forced to use detours — not just creating unnecessary expense but also taking them into places where they weren’t wanted.

Lebanon’s bridge situation is just a symptom of the larger problem — too few funds to adequately maintain the state’s transportation network. State Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement forecasts that the highway fund will find itself $55 million short in 2016, and he is making contingency plans to lay off as many as 600 of his department’s 1,600 employees. The state is also scrambling to find the $250 million it needs to finish off the expansion of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire. Meanwhile, about 1,600 miles of New Hampshire roads are rated as in poor condition and about one-third of its bridges need repair or replacement.

The cause of the problem is no mystery. At 18 cents per gallon, New Hampshire’s gas tax is the lowest in New England. The Legislature’s refusal to increase the tax for more than 20 years amounts to a major cut in funding because the price of highway work has increased significantly.

Inadequate funding is hardly eye-popping news in New Hampshire, but this particular sort of penny-pinching is especially shortsighted. Bad roads and bridges don’t merely challenge the patience and sometimes threaten the safety of travelers, they also hamper economic development. What’s the sense of keeping taxes low as a way of attracting people and businesses to the state if those low taxes are contributing to an inadequate transportation system that’s driving them away?

In March, the House decided that it didn’t make much sense at all and passed a bill calling for a modest gas tax increase — 12 cents a gallon, to be phased in over three years. However, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected the measure, a defeat most observers interpreted as a retaliatory gesture in response to the House’s rejection of a Senate-passed casino bill.

Legislators interviewed by Conarck observed that a gas tax increase stands a better chance when lawmakers return next year. Considering that the need is obvious and that such a measure offers a straightforward way to have users of the transportation network pay for the increased cost of maintaining it, it should be an easy sell. Then again, there’s no guarantee that the state’s chronic case of tax-aversion or an acute attack of political gamesmanship won’t emerge as roadblocks.