April 02, 2014CONCORD — District 1 Senator Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat of Dalton, was one of 15 state senators to vote "yes" on Thursday to increase the state's 18-cent gas tax by 4.2 cents a gallon, effective July 1. Nine senators voted "no." The bill now awaits action in the House.
Senate Bill 367 stipulates that a bond would be floated to pay to widen I-93 between Salem and Manchester and that additional monies would be used to rebuild the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge in Portsmouth, eliminate the Exit 12 ramp toll on the Everett Turnpike in Merrimack, and increase resurfacing and rehabilitation projects in all six NHDOT districts across the state.
"This final result is one we should all be proud of," said prime sponsor Sen. Jim Rausch, a Republican of Derry who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. He characterized the collaborative process leading up to SB367's passage as "a problem-solving effort done in the best interest of our citizens and our state."
Governor Maggie Hassan immediately praised the Senate's effort. "Today's bipartisan vote to strengthen infrastructure investment reinforces that there is broad consensus that we must take action to improve our roads and bridges," Hassan wrote in a prepared statement. "I encourage both Democrats and Republicans in the House to support this bipartisan measure and send the bill to my desk so that we can boost our economy by strengthening our roads and bridges."
Woodburn issued a statement in mid-March explaining his "yes" vote for an earlier version of the gas-tax increase bill: "It is takes tough decisions to turn our economy around and improving our roads is essential," Woodburn wrote. "I cast my vote in favor of a 4-cent gas tax increase because I am convinced it is the right —not easy — thing to do. Our poor roads are a speed bump on the way to the state's economic recovery, but here in Coös County, they are a road block. Nearly a quarter of all the state's roads are in my District. Any improvement in our road system benefits the North Country more than anyplace else. History reminds us: 'Isolation leads to desolation.'"
Fifty years ago the 'Berlin Reporter' predicted that building I-93 so that it would by-pass Berlin and Coös County would transform Lincoln and Littleton into boomtowns and Groveton and Berlin into ghost towns, Woodburn reminded. "And between the years of 1954 and 1974, Berlin and Coös County went from having the lowest unemployment in the state to the highest.
"Today, in the spirit of … the late District 1 Executive Councilor Ray Burton, I will not let Coös County be forgotten — cut off, isolated and left behind — in order to satisfy an ideology or an election," Woodburn concluded.
How the bill would affect Coös if passed in the House has been the topic of a number of e-mails between elected officials.
County commissioner Rick Samson of West Stewartstown and Rep. Leon Rideout, both Republicans, wrote Woodburn directly to ask him for his rationale in supporting the measure.
Woodburn replied that incomplete news accounts had created the wrong impression by not being clear that the I-93 expansion would be bonded and would not be paid for by gas tax revenue.
"I support the gas tax because it will provide the North Country with an enormous net benefit. It is a huge transfer of wealth from the South to the North," Woodburn wrote. "The reason is simple; we have so many state roads — more than 20 percent — and we pay so little of the total tax.
"Just .03 percent of the total volume of gasoline sales come from gas stations in Coös County, and we have to presume that a portion of this is paid by non-Coös County residents who make up our tourism industry.
"In fiscal year 2015, approximately 14 percent of the newly appropriated funds from the gas tax will go to projects in District 1 — and remember each district represents 4 percent of the state's population."
Projects include the Hillside Avenue Bridge in Berlin previously slated for FY 2017 and various road betterment and paving projects in Lancaster, Northumberland, Columbia, Colebrook, and Dixville, plus Route 2 in Randolph and Route 110 in Berlin, plus also sending monies back to municipalities, Woodburn noted.
"This may explain why the late Councilor Burton lobbied me so hard to support the much larger gas tax increase proposed last year — because the system favors us so much," the freshman senator said.
The areas hurt by failing to increase the gas tax for 21 years are those that have so many roads and need them to grow their economy and move people and products, Woodburn maintained.
"Decent roads are essential to developing our tourism, second home, and the industry that exists. A growing bi-partisan consensus has emerged on this issue and the 'do-nothing, against-everything' crowd will stay true to their ideology and preserve the same-old status quo. Reviving the North Country
economy requires tough choices and practical, non-partisan solutions and that's why I support the gas tax," he wrote.
Rideout also weighed in.
"I have been reading about this fuel tax issue, and I must take issue with this being a windfall for the North Country," the freshman rep wrote. "While it is mentioned the low amount of the fuel tax that comes from Coös stations, that statement discounts the fact that many Coös residents travel out of the county for work and purchase fuel in other counties. It also does not take into account that Coös residents have to travel more for just their basic services that this, coupled with a lower wage scale and depressed economy, which means that the financial impact on its residents will be much greater.
"The 14 percent of the new revenue is again shortchanging the North Country since we are the home to 20 percent or more of the state's roads," Rideout pointed out. "The state has failed in maintaining the North Country's roads for generations; that's why many roads in Coös have had seasonal weight restrictions for close to 75 years!" he argued. "That only 4 percent of the state's population lives in District 1 is a false argument; the number of roads should be the true measure."
Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, a Democrat, also responded to Woodburn's e-mails. "I want to thank you very much for your explanation. It makes a great deal of sense to me. When I see New Hampshire with a lower fuel tax but retailers charging the same price as in Maine and Vermont I can only conclude that the wholesale distributers are laughing all the way to the bank.
"We need infrastructure improvement in Coös if we are going to revive the upper reaches and the Connecticut River regions."
Rep. Larry Rappaport, a Republican of Colebrook, also joined the electronic discussion. "The town of Pittsburg has about 800 full-time residents. The weekend population swells to about 5,000, with many of them towing a trailer. They use trucks or cars to get there. These people are not counted in the 4 percent, so I agree with Rep. Leon Rideout: A far better measure is miles of road not population. Obviously, the state must agree; otherwise what would be the purpose of widening I-93?
"Roads are built because people want them. If they fall into disrepair, everyone suffers. Priority is and should be given to those roads that carry the most traffic, but an even higher priority should be given to those roads and bridges which exist for safety reasons, such as the bridge connecting Beecher Falls and West Stewartstown.
"The fire department is on the Vermont side, but it services and is supported by West Stewartstown residents. If the N. H. side has a fire north of the bridge, a water-filled tanker must drive an additional six miles to and from the Canaan, Vt., bridge.
"The W-Stew-Beecher Falls Bridge is in absolutely horrible shape," Rappaport said. "It should be repaired tomorrow, not in 2017 when it is — or might be — scheduled to be repaired or replaced.
"It is human nature to buy gas where it is the cheapest, and folks buy gas in the southern part of the state because it costs less down there," Rappaport noted. "That certainly doesn't prevent them from using it to drive up north. Using dollar figures from gas stations to determine the road toll doesn't reflect usage and never will.
"Some of us might vote against the gas tax," he concluded. "It is a mistake to assign simplistic reasons to us for doing so.