Feds give the green light to widen I-93

The state Department of Transportation won long-awaited federal approval last month to widen Interstate 93 between Salem and Manchester to four lanes each way – a project that may be open as soon as 2011. But there’s a huge catch: One of those new lanes will sit unpaved no matter how bad the gridlock gets unless the state reins in salt pollution in the southern tier.

“We won’t necessarily need that fourth lane by the time we open,” said Jeff Brillhart, assistant commissioner of transportation. “It’s quite likely we’ll have an answer on the salt by then. The biggest issue is safety. The bridges and pavement are falling apart.”

Cathy Laffey, head of the Federal Highway Administration for New Hampshire, was upbeat too. She signed the federal record of decision on the $440 million project June 28. Eighty percent of the funding will be federal.

“We’re pretty confident we’ll be able to use four lanes,” Laffey said. “But to do that we’ll have to reduce the current chloride loadings. Everyone will have to use best practices, including better ways to apply the salt. The state can build a highway footprint with four lanes each way, but if there’s still a problem, they’ll only use three. If you paved the fourth lane, creative people would use those shoulders. They’d find whatever extra room was there.”

The state began using four new brine trucks last winter that spray wet chloride on the pavement when the temperature is right. Officials plan to monitor the pavement with sensors to best time the salting.

Traffic backed up for miles behind the Hooksett tollbooths over the Fourth of July weekend. Southbound lanes saw the same chronic gridlock when tens of thousands of tourists flooded home from the North Country and Lakes Region.

Brillhart said it would be unwise to operate four lanes most of the year, then scale back to three in snow season, as some have suggested.

“Once traffic gets used to using the extra lane, you can’t take it away,” Brillhart said. “We made this deal with the feds so we could start on the construction. The environmental studies can be going on at the same time. We hope we resolve the salt issue by the time we’re done.”

State Sen. Bob Letourneau, R-Derry, heads the Senate Transportation Committee and sponsored legislation four years ago to make I-93 the state’s top road priority.

“I’m delighted we’re moving forward,” he said. “Using Garvee bonds we can build the road in half the time. We’ll sell the land we take by eminent domain to pay off the interest on the bonds.”

State Sen. Robert Boyce, R-Alton, said bonding I-93 was vital to keeping other road projects around the state on the radar screen for completion.

“Without that, it would take 12 or 14 years to finish the interstate,” he said. “And they’d never get around to Route 11. It’s the lifeline for this part of the state.”

Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, said a much longer time frame for I-93 would have killed all road improvements in his part of the state for two decades.

He also said it’s bad marketing to make visitors wait at the entrance to New Hampshire.

“They’ll never come back if they wait for five hours at the Hooksett tolls,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to get all those dollars north.”

Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, opposed bonding the road three years ago as House speaker, but changed his mind this year. A study committee last summer showed him the state could pay off the interest through selling most of the land it takes by eminent domain to widen the highway.

“This project will really help the North Country,” Chandler said. “It’s been a long time coming. I fervently hope the environmentalists won’t appeal it to slow it down. They should see how that road turns into a parking lot for hours at a time.”

Seeking consensus

As compensation for 77 acres of harm to wetlands, the state has agreed to protect 1,000 acres of wetlands and prime habitat in the 19.3-mile road section between Massachusetts and Manchester.

Salem will get 90 acres of land protection, Londonderry 290, Derry 200, Windham 318 acres and Manchester 102.

David Houghton, president of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, said his group has no plans to challenge the record of decision, but wants towns to save their green infrastructure as they grow.

“We are looking to find consensus and find solutions,” Houghton said. “There’s an enormous amount of common ground.”

He’s seen population growth come right up the interstates. “We want communities to have the choice of remaining rural,” he said. “If they choose to go suburban, they should be able to do it in a planned way.”

But the Conservation Law Foundation is weighing the possibility of going to court over the project.

Besides environmental concerns, CLF lawyer Tom Irwin said the widening also is poor fiscal policy because the highway will reach maximum capacity again by 2011.

“The project is unreasonably costly and will not have long-term benefits. I’ve studied the decision, but I need to review some of their supporting documentation in Concord before deciding whether to litigate,” he said.

Laffey said the widening would increase traffic on secondary roads around I-93, forcing towns to work harder and spend more to de-ice their own increasing acreage of pavement. Parking lots and unprotected stockpiles of municipal salt add to salt contamination. So do private wells that use salt as a water softener, Laffey said.

As part of the impact planning for I-93, a panel of Realtors, developers, academics and government planners has predicted the region would grow by 138,000 people in 15 years without widening the highway. A four-lane expansion would lure another 41,000 new residents, the panel said.

Not everyone welcomes the extra students, the school crowding and the environmental impact those new families will mean.

The state has pledged $3 million in grants to protect water quality and another $3.5 million to help 26 towns in the secondary impact zone beef up their growth control tools.

They’ll need that help to weather a tidal wave of growth when the widening is completed. This expertise will help them levy impact fees on new subdivisions, revise town master plans and zoning ordinances, and limit the number of building permits per year. What they learn will help North Country towns when it’s their turn to look at 300-lot subdivisions.

Rep. Paul Smith (R-Auburn) said he opposes sprawl, but welcomed the widening.

“When I moved to Auburn in 1990, it was a tiny place,” he said. “Now we’ve got all these half-million-dollar houses coming in. But I-93 handles many times the traffic it was designed for.”

In her approval, Laffey said the road might help social capital by reducing commuting times.

“Each additional 10 minutes of commuting time results in a 10 percent decline in civic activity,” she wrote.

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