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Mon June 17, 2013
Trapped By Tolls: Merrimack Hopes For Turnpike Freedom
Merrimack is a town trapped by toll booths.
It’s a situation unlike any other in New Hampshire.
Longtime Merrimack resident Chuck Mower lives less than half a mile away from the toll booth at Exit 12 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike.
He has a small coop he maintains at his Depot Road home.
He says the animals give children and neighbors a sense that they’re in the country.
“And as long as we can believe that, it satisfies that little need in us that helps us deal with these transportation issues that fly by us constantly.”
And there’s one particular transportation issue that’s a thorn in the side of Mower and the residents of this large town of 25,000 people: the toll booths at all three points of access to turnpike.
Fifty cents to get on, fifty cents to get off.
Mower says it’s nothing short of an injustice - Merrimack residents foot the bill, while others ride for free.
“It is clearly an impoverishment that the state has placed upon us, economically, that they grant to everyone else from here to the Canadian border without a second thought.”
The tolls are something Merrimack residents have – begrudgingly – come to accept as a part of life.
So, how did we get to this point?
In 1989, the original Merrimack mainline toll plaza built in 1955 was closed and moved north to Bedford.
And at that time, the town had no direct access to the turnpike.
So, the state agreed to build three new exits, giving town officials the access they sought.
Chris Waszczuk oversees the state’s bureau of turnpikes.
He says the tolls were part of the deal and were no surprise to town officials.
“There was a considerable measure of support from the local officials in order to have that access constructed, those three interchanges, with the understanding that they would be tolled.”
Building the new exists cost the state $49 million.
The project was wrapped into $305 million in bonds for major turnpike improvements. And Waszczuk says there’s still $135 million left to pay off on those bonds.
"Of which, $21.5 million is attributed to the Merrimack exits. So those bonds aren’t paid off yet. And they won’t be paid off until 2024.”
The agreement with the town was unique and Waszczuk said there’s nothing else like it in the state.
But now, residents are still pumping in change every day to get on and off the highway.
“When you talk tolls with a Merrimack citizen, they get a little agitated about it," says Finlay Rothhaus, chairman of the Town Council.
He served as a lawmaker in the State House in the early 1990s.
And like many from Merrimack who head to Concord, he had a mission: get rid of the tolls.
All those efforts have failed.
Rothhaus says increasing the gas tax would be more equitable, but he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
"I’ve just grown to live with it. To me, it’s the cup of coffee a day kind of thing. But for our citizens, it’s really I guess an annoyance to say the least.”
There have been glimmers of hope.
In 2001, then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen came out in favor of removing the tolls.
But the Executive Council rejected a plan to remove the tolls at Exits 10 and 11.
The councilor representing Merrimack was the only one to vote for the proposal.
Rothhaus says residents are bitter and toll weary, but they also have a sense of humor about it.
He recalls a 4th of July parade when residents wanted to make sure the politicians marching felt their pain.
"Somebody ran out with a toll booth and said you can’t go until you pay the tolls. So the first toll, they paid, it was going to a charity, I can’t remember where the money went. But everybody laughed, thought that was pretty funny. They go up the road a bit, they get stung with another toll. Now it wasn’t as funny, but they paid again. And then by the time they got hit with a third toll at the end of the parade route, they were a little annoyed, some of them. I got a kick out of it. I thought that was ingenious.”
Senate President Peter Bragdon represents Merrimack, along with several other towns. The town was added to his district last year.
He co-sponsored a bill this session, along with several Merrimack state representatives, that would have removed all the tolls.
The Senate passed it, but only after a committee amended it to only remove the tolls at Exit 12.
That is bill is now stalled in a House committee and the issue likely won’t come up again until next year.
Bragdon says the state must ease the financial burden on Merrimack residents.
"The system has changed completely, and yet a lot of cities have gotten ramps added to the turnpike and not had to add any tolls, Merrimack has had to pay for all their interchanges. I think people are starting to realize the unfairness of that aspect of it. And I do think we will eventually see toll relief for the people of Merrimack.”
So, until the state decides otherwise, local business owners along Route 3 in Merrimack say they’ll have to continue to live with the tolls.
At Axel’s Food and Ice Cream, owner JoAnn Costa says getting rid of the tolls is long overdue.
But she also doesn’t want to lose business, so she offers a special deal for customers who have to pay their way.
"We’ll refund their toll money if they tell us so it won’t be a factor in them not coming here and enjoying our facility.”
There’s another road block – the state Department of Transportation opposes removing the tolls.
“Any kind of erosion of revenue is concerning," says Chris Waszczuk. "You look at it in a very small piece of time, like for one year for example, Exit 12, the net effect is roughly $500,000. Over a ten year period, that’s five million.”
In fiscal year 2012, the three Merrimack tolls combined generated roughly three point three million dollars.
But only about one and a half million dollars of that was net revenue, after factoring in operation costs.
At Exit 10, traffic is up more than 50 percent since the construction of the outlet mall last year.
Toll critics say that extra revenue warrants removing one of the other tolls, if not both.
But Wazchuck says that additional money is helping to offset the loss from the new airport access road.
He says removing even one toll without a plan for replacing the lost revenue would be short-sighted.
“You know, roads aren’t free. So, from a long-term perspective, do I see all three of those ramp locations going away? Probably not. Do I see one, or possibly two? Maybe, as part of a long-term comprehensive approach.”
Back at his Merrimack home, Chuck Mower says all he can do is hope that state lawmakers decide to give the town a break.
“It certainly would show great leadership to straighten out something that has been an unfairness and a burden on this community. Heaven help us; because the state of New Hampshire won’t.”
Until that day, he and others will have to keep paying.
Fifty cents to get on, fifty cents to get off.
Read the New Hampshire Department of Transportation's 2012 Turnpike System Traffic and Revenue Study here.