It's not unlike problems other states are facing, so it's nothing unusual.
The problem? Funding highway maintenance and building projects.
I can't speak for other states, but New Hampshire has a means of funding much of this that, on paper, looks like it would do a pretty good job of making sure that all of the financial needs of the state Department of Transportation, and specifically their needs for highway funds, are met.
Most of those funds are supposed to come from the state gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees. Some comes from the federal government as New Hampshire's piece of the federal highway fund pie. The clincher that's supposed to make all of this work is that the New Hampshire state constitution bans the use of these funds for anything other than highway construction, maintenance, or “for the supervision of traffic thereon.”
Now here's the root of New Hampshire's highway funding problem: 62 percent of the highway funds collected are going to other state agencies having nothing to do with building or maintaining our highways in violation of the state constitution.
As the state struggles to find money to fix bridges and highways, the equivalent of nearly two of each three cents in state gasoline taxes is diverted from road construction.
The state's budget sends highway fund money to eight state agencies where workers never touch a shovel, welding torch or bucket of asphalt. Of the total $128 million in gasoline taxes raised in 2007, $79 million, or 62 percent, was used for non-construction purposes, a Legislative Budget Assistant's Office report shows. A total of $107 million was transferred out of Department of Transportation hands in 2007; $28 million of that went to the betterment of local roads.
If a majority of that money had gone where it's supposed to go our state wouldn't have to postpone or cancel much needed road improvements or construction. What the legislature seems to forget is that if our state's roads are left to deteriorate due to funds constitutionally mandated to pay for them being shifted to other agencies for other uses, our economy could deteriorate with them. Do you think I'm exaggerating? All one needs to do is look to southern New England to see what the effects of deteriorating roads had on the economy of Connecticut.
In the 1960's Connecticut had some of the best roads and highways in the nation. During the mid-70's and early 80's highway maintenance was delayed or canceled. The roads started falling apart. Some became nothing more than long ribbons of patched asphalt that were bumpy and, in some cases, dangerous to travel. As the roads fell apart, so did Connecticut's economy. But the state came to its senses and started rebuilding their roads and adding new ones. As they did, the state economy picked up.
So now the question begs, why have these much needed funds been transferred to agencies having nothing to do with transportation in New Hampshire?
Money is extremely tight at the DOT. The state's 10-year highway plan will take an estimated 35 years to complete unless changes are made to turnpike tolls, gasoline taxes or the plan itself. Acting Transportation Commissioner Charles O'Leary has suggested $1.1 billion in cuts that will get the list to a 22-year plan.
The Department of Safety, which received $70 million or 30 percent of all highway funds last year, gets the bulk of the transferred funds, mostly to cover costs of highway patrols by state police. But Health and Human Services, state courts, the Attorney General's Office, the Department of Environmental Services and the Office of Information Technology also share in the transfers.
Health and Human Services, the courts, the Attorney General's Office, and the Department of Environmental Services? How in hell are they entitled to highway funds? (I can see where the Office of Information Technology gets off receiving some funds – they operate and maintain the DOT's computer networks and systems.)
To quote our governor, “The state should not use the highway fund as an ATM to cover other expenses.”
Maybe it's time for our governor to start using his veto pen and prevent this wholesale theft of funds by the legislature.