NEW HAMPSHIRE AND THE U.S. SECOND RATE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM
“All revenue…from registration fees, operators’ licenses, gasoline road tolls or any other special charges or taxes with respect to the operation of motor vehicles or the sale or consumption of motor vehicle fuels shall be appropriated and used exclusively for the construction, reconstruction and maintenance of public highways within this state…and no part of such revenues shall, by transfer of funds or otherwise, be diverted to any other purpose...
New Hampshire Constitution, Part Second—Form of Government Article 6-a Adopted November 1938
The meager and often low quality United States public transportation systems clearly come to mind when traveling not just in modern European nations or Japan but also when finding outstanding services available in Southeast Asia nations ranging from Korea and Taiwan to Singapore.
While some cite the United States love of the car--and clearly that accounts for part of the scanty Amtrak network and less than two dozen commuter rail systems nationwide--the fact of 30 state constitutions and other law prohibitions on the use of gasoline and car taxation for anything but highway purposes stands alone as the leading cause. Most highway oriented segregation of taxation occurred during the 1930s when states got into the highway building business as a means of improving their economies and when few states had sizeable tax sources so familiar today, for examples, general income and sales taxes. Further, the federal highway programs and policies begun with the Federal Highway Act of 1914 and its successors required states possess administrative capacity to carry out federal highway initiatives and receive federal funding.
Now, however, the landscape in transportation moves through a period of historic change including the first substantial plateau in car travel with several states to record declines this decade, the first occurrence ever. Meanwhile unprecedented growth in all other mode—walking and bicycling, bus, and rail passenger--experience growth levels not seen since the car came into use a century ago. At the same time efforts to address climate change, achieve economic competitiveness, address health, and conserve petroleum resources all combine to reverse decades of urban sprawl, create increased use of all modes except the auto mode as well as an obvious need to address substantial expenditures for modern infrastructure for he suddenly burgeoning transportation modes. Meanwhile Americans learn, often for the first time, the value of public transportation and the varying quality of those services.
While the federal sharing of gas taxes to transit and all other modes began in 1982
New Hampshire reflects all the negative elements of the constitutional restriction of use of highway oriented fees and taxes. The State now enjoys two passenger rail trains with stations in the State receiving tens of millions of dollars of support from federal and neighboring states funds--but no support from New Hampshire coffers. The economic revival of former manufacturing community, Dover, is credited in great part to the now ten ear old successful Downeaster train service paid for mostly by Maine. When a route-long celebration occurred with the extension of the Boston to Portland Downeaster to Brunswick all three New Hampshire stops (Dover, Durham and Exeter) hosted festive events at the celebratory trains made its progress stop after stop towards the new Maine stations at Freeport and Brunswick.
When it comes to bus service the two top ridership systems in a state with three major metro areas are the low population Lebanon-Hanover service, second, and the highest ridership bus service, the UNH Durham campus. The total Lebanon-Hanover service is dwarfed by commuter bus “Link” services to four locations outside Burlington, VT or even one free shuttle operated in Burlington linking the waterfront to its Church Street Marketplace, University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care.
A look at public transit, walking and bicycling journey-to-work shows New Hampshire trailing the most rural state, Vermont, and U.S. averages by a wide margin except for walking to work where New Hampshire trails Vermont but leads the U.S. average:
Journey to Work Modal Share New Hampshire US Vermont
Motor vehicle 89.5 86.1 84.5
Public transit 0.3 5.0 1.1
Walk 3.1 2.8 6.0
Bicycle 0.3 0.6 0.7
Source: American Community Survey
We also know the transportation consumer has radically changed. Younger driving populations licensing is ten percent below the figure of the mid-1990s. Employers who must spend a minimum of about $600 a year to provide an employee parking space now increasingly participate in incentive programs for workers to quit solo driving—and workers are responding in sizeable numbers. During the 2000-2010 commuter buses and employer programs factored into about 900 Vermont workers a year choosing not to ride in a car to work. During that period while total Vermonter with jobs increased 9,000 no increase in car travel to work occurred.
Finally, the car has enjoyed tremendous private and public subsidy—for example, about 40% of all highway infrastructure comes from non-user sources, primarily in the form of property taxes which support local street networks. Air pollution costs, employer parking and retail parking support represent other major subsidies to the car.
New Hampshire faces difficult funding choices for a transportation system moving quickly from car travel to other modes—and fairness alone requires public support of the more sustainable forms of travel, read just about any mode but the car and air travel.
Waiting for constitutional change in New Hampshire may take some time as two-thirds approval is required and pro-motor vehicle interests remain substantial.
New Hampshire can look to the first two states to recognize the changed demands for state transportation finance—Virginia and Massachusetts. Virginia abolished the gas tax in February and now funds all transportation from an across –the-board dedicated sales tax of 0.8 percent. Massachusetts stretched traditional car oriented taxes and now is on the cusp of using income taxes to support operation and expansion needs of all transportation modes. New Hampshire, long a no-broad base tax haven, must seek innovative ways to support non-car modes. One avenue might be to shift all municipal road program expenses to motor vehicles through vehicle sales taxes, increased gas taxes and increased sales taxes on car accessories. This “car property tax shift” would allow imposition of a statewide property tax which would then be available for other modal support, particularly public transit, that is, regional bus and rail networks and intercity rail, like the Downeaster. This is just one example of tax innovation—the point remains that finding a tax source does not prevent addressing the need for the State to quickly address a long festering and deepening need to provide support for non-car transportation modes.
In a general sense, any state with restrictions on use of car-oriented revenues—and three of five states do—must address how to fairly fund other modes with rail and bicycle/walking infrastructure and all public transit requiring a proportional support endemic in the car mode.