Legislation Would Allow N.H. Towns to Boost Money for Roads

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hanover — Area officials are urging passage of a bill they contend would give New Hampshire communities the ability to fund additional transportation and infrastructure projects.

The bill, HB 121, would double the fee cities and towns can tack onto motor vehicle registrations — which are done through city or town clerks in New Hampshire — for local transportation projects.

Since 1997, municipalities have had the option to add a $5 fee when drivers register their vehicles. That money is then earmarked for “improvements in the local and regional transportation system,” under state law.

The legislation would increase that maximum amount to $10 in an effort to keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of construction, said state Rep. Patricia Higgins, D-Hanover, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“In its very simple form, the only aspect of the bill that I submitted is a change to a dollar figure,” Higgins said on Sunday, adding that change would potentially double a fee for some.

However, Higgins said, more money is needed to fund many projects across the Granite State. About 34 communities make use of the fee and for a variety of projects, she said.

Locally, Lebanon uses $60,000 collected annually from the fee to fund Advance Transit, while Claremont’s share goes toward paving projects.

Hanover was also an early adopter of the fee, passing it during Town Meeting in 2000, Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain told the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee during a hearing in March.

The town uses about $34,000 collected annually for bike and pedestrian improvements, including sidewalk projects and road crossings, she said in a recording of the hearing.

“We know it’s going to be there year after year after year,” McClain told the committee. “The impact of this fund has diminished over time as our costs of construction and labor has increased.”

Some regional planners also argue the increased funding would help towns repair aging infrastructure.

Roughly 350 municipally owned bridges in New Hampshire are considered “structurally deficient,” meaning their condition requires more inspections and scrutiny, said Nate Miller, a transportation planner at the Southern New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission.

But many of those bridges don’t qualify for federal aid, and communities increasingly are either choosing to close bridges or turn to the state bridge aid program, said Miller, the former executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.

The Granite State also operates under a “keep good roads good” policy, making it challenging to find money to restore older rural roads, Miller told the Senate committee.

There’s no state funding for reducing traffic congestion, intersection safety improvements or bicycle and pedestrian projects, Miller said, adding the increased charge could help communities plug part of the gap.

The bill passed by a voice vote in the House in March, and the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee recommend the legislation “ought to pass” by a 3-2 vote in November. It’s scheduled for a full vote in the Senate on Wednesday.

Newport-area Republican Sen. Ruth Ward provided the deciding vote in the committee. She said on Sunday that her support is tied to local control of the fee.

Before a municipalities can adopt the fee or increase the amount charged, the proposal must first be approved either at Town Meeting or a City Council.

“It is a town decision and not a decree from the Legislature,” Ward, a Stoddard resident, said.

Higgins agreed, saying the bill allows for “local control every step of the way.” However, she’s worried the Senate vote might fail because some are opposed to increased fees, even if it is voters who ultimately decide whether to adopt or raise the amount paid.

A similar bill filed by Higgins a few years ago was voted down on the House floor in 2016.

“I remain optimistic,” Higgins said of the upcoming vote.

The bill does have the support of several state groups with some clout in the Legislature, including the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which lobbies for cities and towns.

“All municipalities currently assessing this fee, and all those that may want to consider assessing this fee in the future to help fund transportation infrastructure projects, are encouraged to contact your senators before January 3 to urge their support of local control,” the association wrote to member communities in its most recent Legislative Bulletin.

The bill also received support from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which advocates for alternative transportation as a means to reduce pollution, and the Associated General Contractors of New Hampshire trade group.

“We look at this bill as another tool in the tool box in the community,” Gary Abbott, the association’s executive vice president, told the Senate committee.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.