Report: N.H. rural roads need help

In rural New Hampshire, more than 20 percent of the roads are in poor condition and the bridges aren’t faring much better, according to a national transportation report.These figures come as no surprise to officials at the state Department of Transportation, who are concerned that the current state of New Hampshire’s infrastructure — rural or otherwise — may only worsen in the face of constrained transportation budgets both at the federal and state levels.New Hampshire ranks among the 10 worst states in the nation for the condition of its rural roads, with 21 percent of them considered to be in poor condition in 2008, according to the report, which was released Thursday by the nonprofit transportation research group TRIP.The report — which defined rural areas as all places outside the primarily daily commuting zones of cities with 50,000 people or more — said 39 percent of the state’s rural roads are in mediocre or fair condition, and 40 percent are in good condition.New Hampshire’s rural roads did not fare the worst in New England, however; Vermont’s rural roads ranked worst in the nation, with 36 percent in poor condition, and Rhode Island not far behind at 30 percent.New Hampshire also ranked 11th worst in the nation for its percentage of rural bridges that are structurally deficient, according to the report, which analyzed statistics from state departments of transportation.Of the state’s rural bridges, 15 percent are structurally deficient, the report said.”Structurally deficient” is an engineering designation given to bridges that have a major defect in their support structure, deck or other major component that requires significant maintenance or repair and eventual rehabilitation or replacement.A structurally deficient designation does not mean the bridge is unsafe for use, but that it has problems to address, requires more frequent inspections, and may restrict access to heavier-weight vehicles.”We’re not disputing anything that’s there (in the report — we recognize that our infrastructure needs a lot of work,” said Bill Boynton, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. “We started to catch up with the stimulus funding a couple of years ago, but unfortunately we need 10 years of that level of funding to get where we need to be.”The report also found that 15 percent of the state’s rural bridges are considered functionally obsolete, which means they are older and not designed to modern standards, meaning they might not have adequately wide shoulders or lanes.”It is clear that the state of New Hampshire needs to make these key pieces of our infrastructure a higher priority,” said Gary Abbott, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of New Hampshire.But with reduced funding to the transportation department, both at the state and federal levels, Boynton expressed doubts about the state’s ability to do much more than simply maintain its existing system.The elimination of the $30 motor vehicle registration surcharge in the latest budget cycle resulted in a $100 million annual hit to the DOT, which led the department to eliminate 200 positions and reduce the highway maintenance budget by 11 percent this year and 13 percent in 2012, said Boynton.Another large source of funding for the agency is from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which annually provides about $150 million to the state for infrastructure projects. But Boynton said that allotment could be reduced by as much as a third, since the fund has been underfunded for years.”Transportation doesn’t always make people’s (list of) top five issues out there, but as this event this week shows,” said Boynton, in reference to Hurricane Irene and the subsequent road and bridge closures – “the very economy of the state depends on an efficient transportation system.”In keeping with a national trend, the report also found a disproportionately high number of traffic fatalities on rural roads than any other roads in the state; in 2009, 96 of the 110 total traffic deaths in New Hampshire occurred on rural, non-interstate roads.The report attributes this to such factors as higher speeds traveled on rural roads and longer response times for emergency vehicles. Rural roads also tend to be narrower, and “not at the same safety standards as the primary roads,” said Boynton.To improve safety in these rural areas, the DOT has worked with local officials to improve signage at certain dangerous locations, he said.”Reports like this are good – they highlight what the needs are out there,” said Boynton. “And the needs far outweigh the resources.”Nearly 30 public hearings for the next drafting of the DOT’s 10-year plan will be held across the state in the upcoming two months, kicking off Sept. 12 in Charlestown.Local officials and townspeople are encouraged to attend to address their transportation concerns. — KATHLEEN CALLAHAN/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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