The only thing more dangerous for drivers than an over-burdened, outdated highway is a highway under construction. Work zones, lane shifts and uneven pavement can turn a roadway into an obstacle course.
So it is imperative that the widening of Interstate 93 in Southern New Hampshire be pushed through to completion as soon as is possible.
And that makes a Claremont lawmaker’s bill to repeal the priority funding status for the I-93 project an extraordinarily bad and dangerous idea.
The $800 million I-93 widening project has long been New Hampshire’s top transportation project and had priority for available transportation funds.
Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, vice chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee, said his bill to end the priority status would give the state Department of Transportation flexibility to fund other projects.
“There are other needs in other parts of the state that are being ignored,” Cloutier said.
State officials are putting together their 10-year transportation plan. The I-93 project is $250 million short of the funds needed to complete the work. Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement told a House committee last summer that he has enough money to keep construction going on the widening project through the fall of 2015.
Local lawmakers oppose pulling I-93’s priority status.
“I-93 is very, very important,” Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham, told reporter John Toole. “We’ve got to finish that. We’ve worked long and hard on that. That is vitally important to bringing our economy back.”
Rep. Jim Webb, D-Derry, agreed saying that I-93 is a conduit for tourist dollars.
“I-93 is important to the entire state,” he said.
Cloutier said he hopes his bill will cause lawmakers to consider other ways to fund road and bridge work around the state. Last session, he had proposed a 15-cent increase in the gas tax. The measure failed to pass.
Cloutier opposes the use of any future revenue from casino gambling for transportation, saying that money should go to education and human services. Expanded gambling has yet to pass the state Legislature.
“The gas tax is the fairer way of raising money,” Cloutier said. “That is a user fee. The more you drive, the more you pay.”
Griffin opposed the 15-cent hike in the gas tax but said she would consider a smaller increase, albeit reluctantly.
“I think people are being taxed enough,” she said.
Cloutier has a valid point that other road and bridge work in New Hampshire is important, too, and will just get more costly the longer it is delayed. The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission has recommended $480 million in projects to DOT beyond the I-93 widening. State officials have suggested the region can expect only about $116 million.
But it would be a huge mistake to further delay the partially completed I-93 widening.
Interstate 93 is essential to the economy of Southern New Hampshire. It is a major commuter artery and a focus for economic development. The existing highway was inadequate for the traffic load and a danger to drivers.
Delaying the completion of the I-93 widening would put the state’s economy and — more importantly — drivers’ lives at risk.