Outgoing transportation commissioner says fixing highway fund must be key legislative priority

Lawmakers must fix a deficit in the state's highway fund to keep roads and bridges safe for drivers, outgoing Department of Transportation commissioner said.

The highway fund, used in part for maintenance and operations of the state's roads, is facing a projected $50 million deficit by the middle of next year. For drivers, that means more potholes, fewer bridge inspections and waiting longer for crews to clear snow and ice.

"Now is the time to do it. There isn't a longer dwell time between now and the next election to come together and say we know we have an issue with the highway fund," Chris Clement said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Clement, 49, came to the department in 2008 and was appointed commissioner in 2011. He leaves Friday for a job with the University of New Hampshire. Clement said lawmakers and the traveling public must understand the scope of the funding problem.

Money from the fund — about $260 million annually — comes from the gas tax, registration fees and fines from the state police, among other things. The fund also provides money for the Department of Safety and other agencies. In 2013, $80 million from the fund went to other agencies.

Since 2008, spending on operating expenses has gone down by $64 million, resulting in some 400 fewer employees than the department had in 1991, with reductions continuing every year. That means fewer employees to clean up snowy roads and longer hours for those who are working. In 2013, 1,565 miles — or 37 percent — of the state's roads were in poor condition, a lapse that hits drivers in the pocket: Clement said the average driver spends $330 a year on maintenance related to bad roads.

"We're addressing natural events not as quickly as we did before because we don't have as many people or equipment," he said. "From a capital perspective, (drivers) are absolutely seeing and feeling more potholes."

Failing to fix the problems now can lead to higher costs later, Clement said. For example, when the state first began working on expanding Interstate 93 in the 1980s, the project would have cost $35 million. Working on it intermittently for more than 20 years, the state now will pay more than $800 million by the time it is complete.

The department has seen successes in the past six years, Clement said, including an increase in the gas tax that brought in $32 million for road and bridge repairs, a plan to finish the I-93 work and winning a federal grant to fix the Sarah Long Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth. Clement also helped implement a system to measure performance that he drew from his time in private manufacturing and that has made the department more efficient.

Clement said he hopes lawmakers look at a variety of ways to fix the highway fund once and for all in the upcoming session. Some options include another increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fees, or making sure people who drive alternative fuel vehicles — and so don't pay as much in gas taxes — pay their fair share for road maintenance. The department may also seek to split its operations and capital budgets apart, making it easier to illustrate the downward funding trend.

What's essential, Clement said, is that lawmakers don't keep punting the problem.

"If it's not fixed, it's going to drastically alter the mission of this department and the traveling public," Clement said. "And policy makers are going to hear about it very quickly."