House OKs under-funded highway construction road map

The New Hampshire House approved a $2.1 billion, 10-year state transportation plan April 12, but lawmakers are saying its time frame actually covers a 14- or 18-year span due to inflation and a $500 million shortage in federal funds.

A $38 million project to renovate the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth Harbor became the prime victim of the fiscal crunch, sliding back two years on the schedule to 2010. Maine is unable to pay its half of the required 20 percent local match for the 84-year-old drawbridge. The long-awaited Circumferential Highway from Merrimack to Hudson, expected to cost $151 million, has been moved to 2016 and may never happen.

Rep. Dan Hughes, R-New Castle, asked lawmakers to speed completion of the Portsmouth bridge because it spans the channel in the state’s only deep-water port. It also is needed to help evacuate residents in case of an accident or terrorist attack at the Seabrook nuclear plant or nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

“We have five subs in repair right now, all nuclear,” Hughes warned. “If that bridge goes in a crisis, people will not get out. Last summer the levees of New Orleans let go during Hurricane Katrina. Everybody asked how it could happen. Well, our bridge has been unsafe the same way for years. It was supposed to be fixed in 2006. Now that’s 2010.”

Hughes said a dozen fire departments use the Memorial for mutual aid, but the biggest truck it can safely carry is 20 tons. Some fire trucks are twice as heavy. He noted a large volume of road salt, gasoline and heating oil comes in through Portsmouth.

Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, chairs the Public Works Committee, which made eight amendments to the bill after two full days of hearings. He assured Hughes the bridge is No. 1 on the list for rebuilding, but Maine can’t foot its share for at least four years.

“Even if we put it in the plan earlier, there’s no guarantee it would be done,” Chandler said. “That’s the hold-up. The Department of Transportation could move ahead on it if Maine comes through. The design is proceeding just in case. But if we move it sooner without the money, it could put our whole highway program at risk with the Federal Highway Administration.”

In an interview, Chandler said his committee held off from adding any new projects to the plan it received from the governor and Executive Council after numerous regional hearings over eight months.

Ten-year plans traditionally ignore inflation. Gary Abbott, who heads the Associated General Contractors of New Hampshire, testified in committee that the plan is probably $1.7 billion short of the money needed to fund it, assuming a conservative 5 percent yearly rise in costs.

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