I-93 widening project picks up speed

The New Hampshire House last month approved borrowing the money to widen Interstate 93 from Manchester to Salem in six years.

Senate approval is likely, and Gov. John Lynch favors the legislation. Meanwhile, the feds may issue a favorable record of decision in the next three or four weeks on the $421 million project.

State transportation officials hoped for regulatory approval last fall, but a dispute over salt pollution in the southern tier held up the process. Kathleen Laffey, who heads the New Hampshire office of the Federal Highway Administration, said it’s taken a long time to address several hundred pages of public comments on the final environmental impact statement.

“But I think we’ll have our decision some time in March,” she said. “The big issues were mass transit alternatives, the salt problem and the size of the environmental mitigation.”

Rep. Jim Rausch, R-Derry — prime sponsor of House Bill 304, which allows the bond issue — chaired a study committee that endorsed using federal grant anticipation bonds to trim four years off the construction schedule. He said he’s ecstatic at the double good news.

“In my humble opinion, the voice vote in the House was unanimous,” Rausch said. “This is wonderful.”

A related bill would authorize the sale of some $40 million in surplus state property along the highway corridor to pay the interest on the bonds. Realtors, and not auctioneers, would sell those assets at true market prices to keep I-93 from gutting other projects in the state’s 10-year transportation plan. Fear of such a scenario killed a bonding bill last year and created the Rausch study committee.

In a press statement, Lynch said the I-93 widening is critical to the state’s quality of life and economic development, especially in the southern tier. He applauded the bill’s sponsors and urged the Senate to approve the measure, but pledged to keep working on alternative modes of transportation as well.

“This legislation will allow us to complete that expansion — improving public safety, our economy and our citizens’ daily lives — in six years instead of the expected 10 years,” Lynch said.

Growth concerns

Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, co-sponsored the bonding bill and said the remaining cost for I-93 is actually $363 million because much of the design work and right of way acquisitions are completed.

“Selling the state land will let us pay off an estimated $22 million in interest from the bonds,” Morse said. “Doing the project in six years will save us a lot of money on the land takings.”

He said I-93 is a dangerous road just waiting for a spectacular crash.

“We had a big pileup the other day at Exit 1, but luckily no one was hurt badly,” Morse said. “It was in the northbound lane where you go from four lanes to two. The scary thing is we still have six years of construction to get through.”

But a coalition of 13 environmental organizations led by the Conservation Law Foundation wants the federal government to authorize one new lane each way, not two. The smaller project would lessen the population growth and environmental impact, which will fill or damage 75 acres of wetlands near the road, they argue.

A wider I-93 would also draw an estimated 140,000 new people to the state’s southern tier by 2010 – a figure reached by a team of 16 anonymous planning experts, who arrived at the number as part of a secondary growth forecasting process.

Attorney Nancy Girard, head of the CLF in New Hampshire, spearheaded a lobbying effort that sweetened the I-93 environmental mitigation package from 650 acres to 1,000. In the last two years her agency has won a major lawsuit against the state over a proposed Keene bypass, but lost suits to reduce the scale of the Manchester Airport access highway and force the state or the city of Manchester to build a railroad tunnel under a runway on the east side of the airport.

“We’ll be pretty careful what we say until we study the actual record of decision from the Federal Highway Administration,” Girard said. “But CLF looks at all the options.”

She added: “We question why I-93 has to go four lanes (each way). They’ve never explained why three can’t work.”

Environmentalists also want the state to fast-track rail and mass transit alternatives to I-93, because they expect a wider I-93 to reach a failure point again in another decade or two. Their preferred option is reviving the defunct Manchester-to-Lawrence, Mass., rail line, which could carry freight as well as passengers, thus reducing the volume of trucking on the interstate.

The state will reserve space in the median of I-93 for a future light commuter railroad, and it supports bringing a commuter line north from Lowell to Manchester.

Kit Morgan, head of the state Bureau of Railroads, said the Lawrence line is a poor choice because it would have several dozen dangerous grade crossings, and the state owns only half the right of way.

“And that line has only one track,” Morgan said. “We’d have to fill a lot of wetlands to add a second set of rails.”

The I-93 project will need state and federal wetlands permits after it gets the OK from the Federal Highway Administration. That will require an acceptable plan to solve the widespread problem of potential salt pollution along I-93.

In the event of noncompliance with clean water standards six years from now, the state would have to close one of those new lanes.

Salt solutions

I-93 project director Bill Cass acknowledged the political risk, but said the state is already using two brine trucks that spread less salt, and it will buy two more next year. Sensors in the pavement will gauge when the air and ground temperatures are suitable for brine. Crews will get training in best maintenance practices too.

“We can’t let the road widening make the salt problem any worse,” Cass said. “We have to solve that issue before we can use the fourth lane. But the federal record of decision will let us begin the final designs. We can’t wait another three or four years to start construction.”

Cass said ground-breaking could start next year on several overpasses and proposed park and ride centers.

Bill Hauser, who heads the environmental bureau for the state Department of Transportation, said the salt study would pinpoint where the chlorides are coming from and figure out how to reduce that pollution.

“It’s a regional problem, and it will take a regional approach,” Hauser said.

Paul Currier of the state Department of Environmental Services will coordinate the study.

“We don’t know yet what it will cost towns and businesses to comply with water standards,” Currier said. “But we’ve identified a few easy fixes. If there’s a pile of salt without a cover, you just go to Wal-Mart and buy a tarp.”

Sen. Bob Clegg, R-Hudson, co-sponsored legislation last year to protect I-93 and other big road projects from so-called frivolous lawsuits designed to slow down major road projects. The losing plaintiffs would have been responsible for tens of millions of dollars in added costs from delays. The bill failed, but it sent a chill through the environmental community. Girard opposed it.

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