Q&A: State’s New Transportation Commissioner Battles Budget Cuts
I recently spoke with newly confirmed commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, Christopher Clement, about the current budget constraints at the DOT and also his plan on how to finish the $800 million expansion of Interstate 93 without federal dollars. The project, which began in 2007, is an expansion of I-93 from a four-lane highway to an eight-lane highway. Supporters say the expansion will make it easier for commuters to go in and out of Massachusetts, as well as bring needed tourism dollars into New Hampshire’s North Country.
Q: What are some are greatest challenges currently with funding at the DOT?
A: In the last biennium, we had about $124 million cut from our $568 million budget. There was about $90 million cut from a registration surcharge that went away. That’s about $45 million less per year. We at the Department of Transportation eliminated 68 positions or about 19 percent of our workforce. We’re working on our 10-year transportation plan. Our 10-year plan is predicated the majority on federal funding. We heard when I first came on board that all states had to plan on a 35 percent cut from the feds. We cut that $140 million plan down to $100 million plan. That made our 10-year plan much more thin than in years past. Those projects that don’t meet the $100 million on the 10-year plan go on a deferred list.
Q: When might the DOT get to those delayed projects?
A: If the U.S. DOT and Congress funds us and bring us back to $140 million, those projects will go back in the queue in order.
Q: What happens if the proposed cuts from Congress go into effect?
A: It means the expansion of I-93 pretty much slows down to a stop. We will continue to work on the projects that we’re working on, but unless we find a dedicated funding source, I-93 will come to a stop. As it relates to I-93, we as a state can decide to fund that project. We don’t have to wait for the federal government
Q: How would we do this as a state?
A: Now is the time to invest. Right now we could go out and bond $365 million to finish I-93. Rates are about 2.7 percent, so the yearly payment on that bond would be about $33 million a year and that would get I-93 off our books. As a state, we can say I-93 is important. It’s important to all of the state, not just the region that we’re in here along the corridor, but also to the North Country. It’s going to move the traffic from south of the border to Massachusetts and all the people who commute on the corridor up into the state into the North Country. I-93 is the road paved with gold because the economic benefit of finishing I-93 is huge.
Q: You have been lobbying the Legislature and the governor to back a bond loan to finish I-93. Is there support out there?
A: There is strong interest to finish the I-93 expansion project. The difficult part is the funding source and I would say finding the funding source to complete I-93 is more difficult than doing all the project work itself.
Q: I understand that if the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years, is increased by five cents, that it would fund the rest of the expansion of I-93. What has the impact on the department been without an increase in the gas tax for so long?
A: The gas revenue has stayed constant for the most part since 1992, but if you look at what the costs are today – for example the price of liquid asphalt has risen 514 percent since 1992 and the higher cost of construction – it has all eroded the value of the gas tax. In essence the gas tax has about 50 percent of the purchasing power today that it did in 1992. And that’s a big part of our revenue source.