Summit looks at N.H.’s transportation future

Speaking at an Oct. 28 infrastructure summit in Manchester, state Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray challenged opponents of the Interstate 93 expansion to take their objections to court.

“It’s not that I want full employment for lawyers or want to spend more time in court,” she told about 100 businesspeople and public officials taking part in the conference at the Center of New Hampshire. “But instead of whispering about what people are saying we ‘failed to do,’ let’s say it out loud in an open environment, and that will probably be in court.” Murray described the environmental mitigation plans for the $420 million highway expansion as “thorough.”

“There are about 13 environmental groups that say we didn’t study the effect on global warming or the incidence of child leukemia,” she said. “Does it mean a lawsuit? Possibly. Probably. But I think we’ve done things correctly. We impact 75 acres of wetland and we replace them with 1,000. We’ve also looked at further growth, with a $3.5 million Community Technical Assistance Program to help communities plan their futures. I think we’ve done a very thorough job.”

Murray was one of several speakers to address traffic congestion during the half-day summit on infrastructure issues, an annual event of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. She told participants that traffic-tie-ups on I-93 endanger motorists and threaten the state’s economy.

“I still fear that some morning I’ll turn on the radio and hear of a 10-car or 20-car pile up on I-93,” Murray said. “It’s a safety issue, and that highway is not safe as it is today.”

The transportation commissioner spoke shortly after Manchester Mayor Robert Baines described a trip to Boston on I-93 that took three hours.

“I have friends in Rhode Island who are no longer skiing in New Hampshire because they’ve been backed up too many times on I-93. It’s strangling the state,” Murray said.

The anticipated widening of the interstate, New Hampshire’s major north-south throughway, will expand the highway from two to four lanes in each direction from the Massachusetts border up to Manchester. Construction is scheduled to begin next year and continue to 2016.

Airport access road

Murray said the project could be accelerated if the Legislature next year authorizes borrowing under a federal grant program. Under the program, the state is allowed to guarantee bonds for construction, based on anticipated federal highway funding. Up to $195 million could be borrowed, Murray said.

“That will mean I-93 will be completed in six years,” she said. “The way it currently is in the plan, the last part of the project will be put out for bid in 2014.”

As for the long-awaited highway connection between the Everett Turnpike and Manchester Airport, the state needs to acquire more land for wetlands mitigation before the project can begin.

Airport Director Kevin Dillon described the access route as crucial to accommodate the growth in both passenger and cargo traffic. Murray agreed, but admitted she was being “a little bit on the optimistic side,” in speaking of the highway’s completion by the end of the decade.

“I hope to be driving on it by 2009,” she said. “It is critical to the airport, and the airport is critical to the state and to New England as a whole. It is coming, Kevin,” she assured Dillon, adding that at the groundbreaking, “We’ll give you the first shovel.”

Talk of highway problems led to discussions among conference participants of bus and rail travel, as speaker after speaker stressed alternatives to the private automobile.

Van Chestnut of Advance Transit said his not-for-profit company provided bus service to 775,000 passengers in seven New Hampshire and Vermont communities in the Upper Valley region in the last fiscal year. He also noted that Dartmouth College, the second-largest employer in the region, has encouraged car-pooling and public transit use by offering to buy back the parking stickers of its employees. Eligible employees who live within three-quarters of a mile from the college can receive $180 in exchange for the sticker, while those living further away can collect up to $360.

Dartmouth’s $1.3 billion capital campaign for future expansion will likely reduce the space available for parking in Hanover, he observed. “The only place to build there is on existing parking lots. How in the heck is that going to work?” said Chestnut.

David Smith of the Manchester Transit Authority said the MTA used to provide service through inter-local agreements on routes in Bedford, Goffstown and Hooksett, as well as Manchester. Now the bus company ventures outside Manchester for only a mile or so into Bedford on Route 3. The aging fleet of buses is due to be replaced with 12 new buses purchased over the next four years.

“To stretch those buses another four years is going to be a challenge,” Smith said. The MTA is carrying about 400,000 passengers a year, he said, while Manchester’s transit system has the fewest hours of operation among cities of its size. “We need to find a way to increase those hours to adequately service the people of Manchester,” Smith said.

Peter Griffin, president of the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association, said highway traffic jams are costing American businesses billions of dollars annually in lost time and productivity. More federal and state tax dollars should go into mass transit, he said, instead of being so heavily concentrated on highways, a practice he likened to “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

“Do you put all your money in one stock?” asked Griffin, an executive with Fidelity Investments. “Would Kevin put all the airport resources on one carrier?”

He cited the Downeaster rail service from Portland, Maine, to Boston as an example of the potential of rail service to promote local commerce.

“Portland has done very well in attracting people to take the Downeaster to Portland and dine at their restaurants and do some shopping,” he said. “Manchester and this corridor have the same opportunity.”

Manchester Planning Director Bob MacKenzie said mixed use zoning in center city areas can help alleviate traffic congestion and “urban sprawl.” He cited Manchester Place, planned for the corner of Bridge and Elm streets, as an example of the kind of development that can reduce the number of automobile trips by integrating residential and retail uses. The plan calls for 200 apartments, with retail shops on the first floor.

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