SALEM, N.H. — Lawmakers yesterday protested the state transportation commissioner's plan for an Interstate 93 toll, calling it a tax on travelers and consumers — and challenged Gov. John Lynch to squash it.
Protest organizer Rep. D.J. Bettencourt, R-Salem, said I-93 is a critical artery for commerce in the entire state. Placing a $2 toll at the border "would absolutely devastate our tax advantage in New Hampshire," he said.
GOP gubernatorial candidate John Stephen, who travels I-93 daily from Manchester to his job in Boston, said the toll would cost commuters $550 a year.
"Let's call this what it is, this is nothing more than the John Lynch tollbooth tax," Stephen said.
Lynch spokesman Colin Manning said later that the governor has questions and concerns about the toll, but wants the state Department of Transportation to do its due diligence to explore all options for funding the widening of I-93.
New Hampshire is in the midst of a $780 million project to widen I-93 from Salem to Manchester, replace bridges, and reconstruct interchanges.
Yesterday, lawmakers from corridor towns, the executive director of the Greater Salem Chamber of Commerce, residents, and Stephen stood outside the Exit 2 park-and-ride at noon to protest the proposed toll.
Standing at a distance and observing the event on his lunch hour was Jim O'Malley, who works nearby for a small phone and information technology business.
"It's going to impact me and the company I work for," he said.
Also at the event was Salem contractor Jeff Hatch. He said a toll would take a toll on his wallet.
"The last two or three days, I would have paid an additional $20," Hatch said.
Resident Bob Gibbs said he would get off the highway to avoid the toll and travel local roads, as would many others. He said local roads would be "like the week before Christmas" all year because so many drivers would avoid the toll.
Several of the lawmakers called on Lynch to stop the state's application for the last remaining slot in a federal program that allows tolls on an interstate with a funding need for a major capital project.
Bettencourt said DOT Commissioner George Campbell's claim — that New Hampshire must apply for a toll because Massachusetts will apply for it — no longer holds water. Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said the state has no plans for a toll on I-93.
New Hampshire DOT spokesman Bill Boynton said later that nothing is keeping Massachusetts officials from changing their minds about a toll.
"They did once," he said.
Bettencourt said Massachusetts transportation officials have steadfastly, from the outset, said they have no interest in a border toll. Campbell's proposal calls for a southbound toll near the state border.
The commissioner has said he plans to file an application next month with the Federal Highway Administration for the southbound toll. But that plan is not etched in stone.
"We are still in the information gathering stage and that information will ultimately be used to decide whether an application will be filed," Boynton said.
He also said lawmakers who oppose the project can vote against a New Hampshire toll, if it ever gets that far in the process.
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