Gas taxes have traditionally been the way to recover costs from motorists for the construction and upkeep of roadways and bridges. However, these revenues have declined steadily over the years as the number of electric powered and hybrid vehicles have increased, and as fuel economy standards and average city/highway fuel economy ratings of vehicles in the US have increased. Gas tax revenues, along with vehicle registration fees and driver license fees, must be deposited into the state highway fund codified in the New Hampshire constitution in 1938. Gas tax revenues constitute approximately 55% of state revenue allocated to the highway fund and are about one-third of the total federal and state funds allocated to the highway system. The state gas tax is currently 22.2 cents a gallon (the federal tax is 18.4 cents) and has been in effect since 2014 when it was increased from 18 cents.
In an attempt to confront reduced gas tax revenues, the state has been attempting, without success, to develop road usage fees to boost the highway fund balance. As of 2018, 18 states had imposed some form of a road usage fee, but New Hampshire has yet to do so.
In 2015, a state commission was convened to study “alternatives to the road toll [the statutory name for the gas tax] for electric-powered, hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles.” Since then a number of bills have been referred to interim study and tabled. In 2018, HB 1763 narrowly carried the House on a roll call vote of 168-152, but, when Gov. Chris Sununu threatened a veto, it was sent to interim study by a voice vote of the Senate. In 2019, HB 478 was retained for further consideration by the House Public Works and Highways Committee, then reported out of committee in the fall with a favorable vote of 16-5. But when it came before the full House in early January of this year, the bill was tabled. Two road usage bills are now pending before the legislature. HB 1649 would charge additional road use fees based on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle; the more fuel efficient the vehicle, the higher the fee. HB 1650 would charge a road usage fee based on the weight of the vehicle and annual miles traveled, with higher fees for heavier vehicles and those that travel more miles.
While most parties agree that deterioration in highways and bridges is an issue that must be addressed in New Hampshire, policy and political disagreements about the fairest, least costly solution remain unresolved.
About the Author: Douglas Patch
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