State: Transportation funds inadequate for current need
CONCORD —Needed repairs to the state's transportation infrastructure are falling further and further behind and that trend will continue without significant investments by the state.
Department of Transportation officials said Tuesday that in order to keep up with the needs, the state needs to reinstate the $30 registration surcharge that was repealed last year, and increase both tolls and the gas tax.
The officials met with the House Public Works Committee to review House Bill 1716, the state's 10-Year Transportation Plan.
In a letter to the committee, Gov. John Lynch cites the progress made to improve the transportation system from replacing the Memorial Bridge connecting downtown Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, to relieving congestion along the Spaulding Turnpike, Routes 101 and 101A, open road tolling and the Interstate 93 widening project from Salem to Manchester.
“We cannot, however, afford to be complacent. The reduction of state highway fund revenue, combined with anticipated cuts in federal revenue, mean that this plan lacks the revenue to fund several critical projects — including future phases of the widening of Interstate 93,” Lynch wrote. “We must approach this project with a greater sense of urgency. The longer we delay, the longer our citizens and businesses bear the economic cost of congestion.”
DOT Director of Project Development Bill Cass told the committee the funds are available to complete the I-93 project from Salem to Exit 3, but not from there to Manchester. He said it will require about $250 million more to complete the project, which he called an “unfunded need.”
There are other unfunded needs in the plan, from an additional $15 million a year to fix red-listed bridges and $12 million a year for paving roads statewide, to $73 million to complete the Little Bay bridges on the Spaulding Turnpike and $90 million to widen I-93 from Bow through Concord.
Also needed is $55 million for the reconstruction of Exits 6 and 7 on I-293 in Manchester, and $56 million to widen the F.E.Everett Turnpike to three lanes in both directions from Merrimack to Bedford.
Projects that will be deferred due to the lack of money include a $16.5 million, 600-space park and ride structure in Manchester, the Conway bypass and final phases of Broad Street reconstruction in Nashua.
Over the next 10 years of the plan, revenue is $1.33 billion short, according to department officials, Several committee members noted that a gas tax increase of a nickel a gallon would fund the completion of the I-93 project, and DOT Commissioner Christopher Clement agreed, and said he intends to ask the governor and Executive Council for a toll increase in the fall.
“If we don't change the paradigm of investment, we will have huge numbers,” Clement said.
But committee chairman Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, told committee members they need to talk about the real world and should not count any additional revenue.
Several committee members asked about the Memorial and Sarah Long bridge projects in the Seacoast.
Clement said the Memorial bridge work is under way and his department is negotiating with the Maine DOT on rehabilitating the Sarah Long Bridge.
He said Maine would like to move ahead with the work on the Sarah Long, but New Hampshire wants to widen the span so the new larger ships can navigate through the bridge. He said the widening would cost about $30 million to $50 million.
If the opening is not widened, Clement noted, all that ship traffic will be going to Portland, Maine, instead.
“Tell us what you need,” said committee member Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua. “It shall be this way or we are not coming to the party.”
Clement said the other issue is the railroad tracks on the bridge, which will require another $30 million to fix or reconstruct. The federal Department of Defense is the only user of the tracks, using them to move nuclear fuel out of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
But Clement noted that, with the possibility of another Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which could target the shipyard for closure, no one wants to push too hard.
“That's just another little quirk in this whole thing,” Clement said.
Additional public hearings on the 10-year plan will be held Thursday.
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