N.H. needs Congress to jump-start transportation bill

The inability to move forward on important federal spending bills such as the Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21) is having an impact on the progress of infrastructure projects throughout New England and will ultimately have an impact on the region’s economy.

TEA-21, which provides highway and transit funding, was scheduled for reauthorization in 2003. Congress instead passed stop-gap extensions that have meant continued level-funding, without room to progress on many needed projects.

No one debates the need for infrastructure improvements. The issue is of particular interest to New Englanders, who regularly use some of the nation’s oldest transportation systems.

Consider the state of New Hampshire’s roads and bridges, described in a 2004 report by The Road Information Program (TRIP), a national nonprofit transportation research group, based in Washington, D.C.

Twenty percent of New Hampshire’s state-maintained roads were categorized in “poor or mediocre” condition as of the 2002 data. Conditions have improved, however, since 1998, when 23 percent of the state’s road system fell into this category. Bridge conditions also have improved since 1998. But the report states that 15 percent of the state’s bridges (20 feet or longer) were “structurally deficient” in 2003. This exceeds the national average of 14 percent.

The Federal Highway Administration reports that road conditions are a factor in about 30 percent of traffic fatalities across the country. The agency further estimates that every $100 million spent on highway safety improvements will result in 145 fewer fatalities over a 10-year period.

Use of roads in poor condition also causes delays and becomes an economic issue. Poor road conditions cost New Hampshire about $196 million annually, costing each motorist about $208 per year, TRIP stated in its report.

Congestion is another issue that has an impact on safety and economics. New Hampshire’s population grew 15 percent in the past decade and is expected to increase another 13 percent by 2025. More people are on the roads.

The TRIP report found that 35 percent of New Hampshire’s urban highways were congested in 2002, resulting in significant delays. The report also stated the average daily one-way commute increased from 21.9 minutes in 1990 to 25.3 minutes in 2000. The typical New Hampshire commuter spends an average additional 28.3 hours a year in traffic, compared to 10 years ago. Vehicle travel in the state increased 24 percent in the past 10 years and is projected to increase by another 40 percent by 2025.

Further economic impact of roads needing repair becomes evident when one considers that 88 percent of the $31 billion in commodities delivered each year to and from New Hampshire are transported on the state’s highways.

The issue of transportation infrastructure is intrinsically linked to our economic health. Approximately 42,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure.

Investment in New Hampshire’s highways, roads and bridges is critical to maintaining the safety and economic well-being of the state. It is clear that the reauthorization of TEA-21 is important to New England’s vitality. Further delays on this reauthorization could threaten each state’s ability to improve its transportation infrastructure. It is vital that Congress works to expedite the reauthorization of this important funding for our health and economy.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business organization.

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