March 03. 2013 9:59PM

Portsmouth bridge battle could cost entire state

Union Leader Correspondent

PORTSMOUTH - As New Hampshire and Maine fight over who will pay for replacement of the Sarah Mildred Long bridge, a recently released study shows how much the bridge's role in maritime commerce contributes to state coffers.

Five of the seven terminals that call the Port of Portsmouth home sit upriver of the angled "middle" bridge, including National Gypsum/Irving Oil, Public Service of New Hampshire, Tyco Wire & Cable, Sprague, Avery Lane/Sea-3 Newington, and Sprague, River Road. Granite State Minerals and the Market Street state pier sit downriver.

The position of the bridge reduces the 200-foot opening to a mere 106 feet. As marine vessels continue to widen, it puts the upriver terminals at economic risk.

The 2012 study recently released by the Piscataqua River Economic Development Committee concluded that the total regional impact of port-related activities in 2011 totaled $275 million and provided 2,350 jobs.

The vast majority of that impact is felt in New Hampshire. Of the 987 jobs provided directly by the 16 terminals, only 20 percent of the workforce comes from Maine.

The terminals provided over $25 million in state and local taxes in 2011, with more than $20 million of that coming into New Hampshire.

In 2011, 3.1 million tons of cargo worth $1.7 billion was loaded or discharged at the terminals along the river, an increase of 2 percent compared with 2010, but a decrease of about 13 percent compared to the last economic impact study conducted in 1998.

A significant portion of the region's energy comes in through the port, including oil, propane and coal, accounting for nearly $1 billion in cargo value, or about 20 percent of New Hampshire's energy use.

$1.4 billion at risk

According to the report, $8 out of every $10 of cargo activity on the river passes under the Sarah Mildred Long bridge, including all energy shipments.

In 2011, 132 vessels passed under the bridge; 1 out of 5 of those was at maximum width.

The report concludes that up to $1.4 billion in commerce could be at risk over the coming years if the maritime industry cannot serve the upriver locations at competitive levels due to the constraints caused by the Sarah Mildred Long bridge.

As the dimensions of the pool of global merchant ships increase, nearby ports are already making infrastructure improvements, including Chelsea Harbor in Massachusetts and in Portland, Maine, making the Sarah Mildred Long bridge the narrowest horizontal clearance of the major northern New England ports.

The report said there is a fear of the Piscataqua River becoming as outdated as the famed cross-country Route 66 for waterborne commerce in the area if the bridge is not replaced with a wider span.

States disagree

New Hampshire and Maine share responsibility for the three bridges that connect Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine. The Memorial Bridge is currently under construction and expected to open in July, making replacement of the middle bridge the next top priority.

The bridge is now New Hampshire's No. 1 red-listed bridge, meaning it is the bridge most in need of repair.

The Maine Department of Transportation is leading the way on a design and build plan for the bridge, but last session the Maine Legislature indicated the state will not pay substantially more for a new bridge than it would have paid for rehabilitation of the old bridge.

At the same time, the New Hampshire Legislature has said it will only agree to a new bridge.

Mike Skelton, is a spokesman for PSNH, which operates both Schiller Station and Newington Station upriver from the bridge. He said the study confirms the significant impact the port has on New Hampshire's economy and also identifies some of the challenges facing the port.

"As identified in the study, the narrow opening under the Sarah Long ... Bridge is a challenge going forward as the trend in shipping is moving toward wider ships," Skelton said. "Long-term, the trend could not only impact PSNH as a shipping customer, but the overall economic benefits the port brings."

Skelton said he hopes the study will ensure upgrades to the bridge are in line with the trends of the shipping industry.

The report was written by Matt Magnusson and Ross Gittell of the University of New Hampshire and Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine.