By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — The $800 million Interstate 93 widening is the state’s longstanding priority for transportation funding, but a key lawmaker is challenging that view.
Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, vice chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, is sponsoring a bill to repeal I-93’s priority status.
He said that would give the state Department of Transportation flexibility to fund other projects.
“There are other needs in other parts of the state that are being ignored,” Cloutier said.
He can expect a fight over his proposal.
“I-93 is very, very important,” said Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham. “We’ve got to finish that. We’ve worked long and hard on that. That is vitally important to bringing our economy back.”
Rep. Jim Webb, D-Derry, agrees with Griffin.
“I-93 is important to the entire state,” he said.
Just look at the tourists or auto racing fans who come into the state on I-93, he said.
“I think he can expect a fight,” Webb said. “I’ll get up and speak against it.”
Even if Cloutier gets his bill through the House, Webb expects the Senate would put a stop to it.
“If it gets that far, I think the Senate will kill it anyway,” he said.
Cloutier acknowledges he supported making the widening of I-93 a funding priority in years past, but has concluded times have changed, money is scarce and the state has to look at other considerations.
“These are not normal times,” Cloutier said.
Because New Hampshire also has to fix roads and bridges elsewhere in the state, it will have to spend more later if it doesn’t do something now, he said.
“There are consequences to our inaction,” he said.
Cloutier is hoping his bill will force House and Senate lawmakers to consider funding options to finance road and bridge improvements statewide.
He said he doesn’t want to completely stop work on I-93, but would spread funding to other communities.
Last session, Cloutier supported a phased, 15-cent increase in the gas tax to pay for road and bridge work.
That proposal failed to pass the Legislature.
Cloutier also has supported expanded gambling, but said he would prefer casino revenues go to education or human services, and pay for roads through gas taxes.
“The gas tax is the fairer way of raising money,” Cloutier said. “That is a user fee. The more you drive, the more you pay.”
Increasing the gas tax 15 cents as lawmakers considered last session is something Griffin is unwilling to do.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “It’s robbing the people.”
If a smaller increase is proposed, Griffin said she would consider it in consultation with other lawmakers, but admits that is something she is reluctant to do.
“I think people are being taxed enough,” she said.
Officials are developing the state’s 10-year transportation plan and at hearings have said the I-93 widening is $250 million short of funding.
“It’s the state’s most important project,” DOT Commissioner Chris Clement said in Londonderry last month.
But there are many other funding demands.
The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission has recommended $480 million in projects to DOT beyond the I-93 widening.
State officials have suggested the region can expect only about $116 million.