N.H. approves one-way toll on Interstate 95

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A week after Gov. Craig Benson got stuck in a four-mile traffic backup at the Interstate 95 toll plaza, he successfully pushed for a change: a one-way toll.

He lobbied the Executive Council on Thursday to approve a six-week experiment to eliminate the southbound toll on the busy highway in Hampton.

The plan, which starts Friday, has drivers paying double when heading north. The council approved it 4-1.

The idea is to get rid of huge southbound traffic jams that usually happen on Sunday afternoons when people head home from New Hampshire or Maine weekends. There also are backups during the week.

“Yes the governor got caught in traffic,” Benson, a Republican, told reporters, “but in this particular case, we’ve gotten a fair number of traffic complaints.”

Kathy Sullivan, state Democratic Party chairwoman, said the idea might be a good one, but “you shouldn’t make decisions in government based on a whim.”

The council met Thursday in special session with little public notice that it was taking up the toll issue.

Sullivan said studies should’ve been done to determine whether the one-way toll was the best solution and that residents should have been consulted – a concern echoed by Peter Spaulding, the councilor who voted against the proposal.

“The way we do things in New Hampshire is to allow people to respond,” said Spaulding, R-Hopkinton.

Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray defended the timing as critical to getting a good record of traffic flow and of traffic diverting to side roads. She said the next three weekends are New Hampshire’s busiest on the interstate.

Spaulding also was concerned that the northbound collection would send traffic, especially trucks, onto secondary roads.

“Nobody asked us,” said Seabrook Town Manager Frederick Welch. “We’re concerned that there will be additional impact on traffic on Route 1, which is already overcrowded.”

Welch kidded that if he could do something immediately, it would be to remove the “last exit before toll” sign along I-95 that leads to Seabrook.

Benson, who lives in Rye, got stuck in the southbound lanes at 3 p.m. last Thursday. He also got caught in a backup on a recent Saturday, he said.

Benson said tourists come to New Hampshire to get away from traffic snarls.

“Yet, here’s a welcome mat to New Hampshire – a traffic backup as significant as any metropolitan area,” he said.

Expressing interest in the New Hampshire experiment, the Maine Turnpike Authority said it had studied a potential shift to one-way tolling at the York toll plaza as part of the turnpike widening project.

“What has always caused us to walk away from the that idea is the potential for traffic diversion,” said Dan Paradee, turnpike spokesman.

Paradee said that with a few minor exceptions, one-way tolls have proven successful only on bridges or tunnels.

Benson said the council can revisit the experiment at its Sept. 3 meeting and modify or end it if it isn’t working. “We can put it back at any time,” he said.

During peak travel times, the state will open 10 northbound lanes through the plaza. Benson said 11 would be open over Labor Day weekend. Four lanes will be open for southbound traffic.

The current toll each way for autos is $1. Under the proposal, the northbound drivers would pay $2 and their return trip south would be free.

Trucks pay higher tolls, which could encourage them to use nearby Route 1 and other roads to bypass the doubled fee. The highest toll trucks now will pay is $8 for traveling northbound.

Spaulding suggested making the change for passenger cars, but not trucks. But Murray said that would be harder to do and could cause accidents.

Murray estimated about 780 of the 6,500 trucks using the highway daily would divert to other roads. But Murray said alternative routes already are jammed and that could send the drivers back to the interstate.

In all, an average of 70,000 vehicles pass through the toll plaza each day.

AP-ES-08-21-03 1421EDT

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