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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

10-year roads plan running $1.5b short

CONCORD – The next 10-year highway plan is more than $1.5 billion short of revenue to meet needs, Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement told a House panel Tuesday.

In Nashua, the $4.7 million reconstruction of Route 130 (Broad Street), the $2.2 million rebuild of Main Street from Hollis Street to Orchard Avenue and the $5.3 million widening of Route 101A all are necessary projects that don’t make the cut from 2013-22.

The $250 million plan to bring commuter rail service from Boston through Nashua and Concord isn’t paid for; neither is the $15 million cost to buy the passenger rail cars that would carry commuters.

And the existing schedule does not have to cover the $360 million cost to widen Interstate 93 from Exit 3 in Windham to Manchester.

The repeal of a $30 surcharge on auto registrations, a feared, deep cut in federal grants and no increase in the state gasoline tax in 21 years combine to have road, bridge and rail wants far outstrip available money to pay for projects.

“The story is still the same,” Clement told the House Public Works and Highways Committee. “If we don’t change the paradigm in terms of investment, we are still talking about a very big number.”

Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, said increasing the 18-cent-per-gallon gas tax by a nickel would pay for I-93.

“Even if these new sources of revenue won’t happen, we still should quantify it,” Campbell said.

In his State of the State speech last month, Lynch criticized the GOP-led Legislature for doing away with the surcharge and called upon them to find a way to pay for the I-93 work.

“We must approach this project with a greater sense of urgency,” Lynch wrote the Legislature in submitting his recommendations for the 10-year plan (HB 1617). “The longer we delay, the longer our citizens and businesses bear the economic cost of congestion.”

While in office, Lynch has gotten behind two increases in turnpike toll revenues to pay for improvements and new technology like the open-road tolling that allows motorists on Interstate 95 in Portsmouth to pass through toll stations at the speed limit without stopping.

Clement said later this fall that he will prepare another turnpike toll increase request to pay for similar open-road tolling on the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Bedford and Hooksett and reconstruction work in Manchester and Concord.

But a gasoline tax increase in an election year before this GOP-dominated House appears very unlikely.

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, had proposed to temporarily cut the gasoline tax by a nickel a gallon to help financially struggling families during the recession.

“There is a limited amount of money we are dealing with,” said Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, who chairs the House panel.

The plan presumes federal grants will be cut from $140 million a year to $100 million as President Barack Obama proposed in his last federal budget.

Federal highway bills pending in Congress offer potentially some better news, but Assistant Commissioner Jeff Brillhart said that’s too speculative for this plan to rely upon.

The shortfalls are virtually in every infrastructure spending category, Director of Project Development Bill Cass said.

Ideally, the state should be spending $12 million more a year to have repaving work keep up with the crumbling shape of roads and bridges.

“This is still a funding level where we are losing ground incrementally,” Cass explained. “We are paving less and less miles over time.”

This plan presumes spending $35 million a year to repair slightly less than half of the 149 structurally deficient bridges on the Red List.

To reverse several years of having more red list bridges added each year than those removed would take another $15 million annually, Cass continued.

Clement revealed it will cost the state $30 million more than budgeted to widen a rebuilt Sara Long Bridge in Portsmouth that includes a railroad trestle that runs to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Jerry Gappens, general manager of the New Hampshire International Speedway, pitched for a 10-mile, $20 million widening of Route 106 from Concord to the front door of his Loudon track.

“We have kind of put a Band-Aid on a two-lane road,” Gappens said. “It’s time to take a look at that and try to improve it from a safety standpoint and get the traffic out on a timely fashion.”

Chandler asked DOT officials for plans to break this work out into three shorter stretches of widened roadway.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.