By Doug Ireland
---- — DERRY — Legislative action is critical if the state is going to address an urgent need to repair or replace its deteriorating roads and bridges.
That was the message at a transportation forum yesterday.
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation is tackling a lengthy list of projects, including 140 “red-listed” state-owned bridges in poor condition, but more funding is needed to continue the work, Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement said.
That includes completion of the 20-mile widening of Interstate 93 between Salem and Manchester before permits for the $770 million project expire in 2020, according to Clement and Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry.
Clement, Rausch and airport director Mark Brewer of Manchester-Boston Airport were the keynote speakers at a two-hour breakfast forum, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” at Brookstone Event Center.
“We are kind of at the home run stretch here,” Clement said of I-93. “It’s the state’s most important project deemed by the Legislature.”
Rausch, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, agreed completing the I-93 widening remains New Hampshire’s most significant transportation priority.
But the key question is how to pay for the remaining $250 million in work that is not funded.
Raush said the Legislature’s approval of expanded gambling is needed to help finish the project. The Senate recently passed Senate Bill 152, co-sponsored by Rausch, that would provide the state with $80 million from the casino licensing fee and $100 million in annual revenue.
Forty-five percent of that annual revenue would be earmarked for transportation projects, ensuring the I-93 project would be finished before permits expire in seven years, Rausch said.
Although the Senate and Gov. Maggie Hassan back the casino bill, its fate remains uncertain in the House.
“How the bouncing ball ends up, we probably won’t know until June,” Rausch said.
Several projects between Exit 1 in Salem and Exit 5 in Londonderry are funded and scheduled for this year. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen beyond 2015.
A member of the audience asked Clement what would happen if expanded gambling were not approved and no alternative funding sources were found for the remaining work.
“That means all work will stop,” Clement said. “Big piles of dirt will sit there.”
He emphasized the need to fund bridge and road repairs.
Only 98 of the state’s 140 red-listed bridges will receive money through the 10-year highway plan, Clement said. It would cost $680 million to repair or replace all 140, he said.
Clement said he’s also concerned that communities need to repair or replace 353 municipally owned bridges across the state.
At least $12 million is needed each year to keep up with road projects, he said, but limited funding and a 460 percent price increase in pavement alone since 1992 makes that difficult, he said.
Thirty-seven percent, or 1,565 miles, of New Hampshire’s roadways have been classified as poor, based on federal standards, he said.
Brewer said the airport is helping drive the region’s economy, despite an industrywide decline in business since 2008. The number of passengers at the airport is starting to rise again for the first time in nearly five years, he said.
“We are pretty excited that we have reached our plateau and are going to start our rebound,” he said.
The breakfast forum was hosted by the Greater Salem and Greater Derry Londonderry Chambers of Commerce.