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February 21. 2012 8:43PM

Lack of long-term highway bill hurts I-93 widening plan

SALEM — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen spoke with local authorities and business people about the importance of passing a funding extension that will keep the Interstate 93 widening project moving forward.

Representatives from Salem, Windham, Derry, Londonderry, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and businesses affected by the I-93 project met with Shaheen at Salem Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

“This is a project that not only has been worked on for a long time but is critical to what is going on in southern New Hampshire,” Shaheen said.

The project was budgeted and planned based on the idea that the federal government would provide a consistent amount of funding, Shaheen said. Uncertainty created by a lack of long-term highway bill had made the project difficult to finance, Shaheen said.

“It's really hard to plan without any sense of certainty about what's coming out of the highway bill,” said Cliff Sinnott, executive director of the Rockingham Planning Commission.

He estimated that 18 projects had been removed, delayed or reconfigured due to financing. Borrowing costs are low and bids are competitive, making this a good time to move the projects forward, Sinnott said.

“It's unfortunate that we can't capture that type of opportunity,” Sinnott said.

About $115 million in bonding authority now on hold is meant for contracts to complete the bulk of work around Exit 2 and the final configuration of Exit 3.

“It affects our entire commercial area, and it's a waiting game now,” said Laura Scott, community development director for the town of Windham.

The highway project includes reconfiguration of some roads in Windham, causing business owners to hold off their own expansions until the state work is complete, Scott said.

“Businesses understand when there's a financial constraint but it's at the point now where there's no answer left,” Scott said.

In addition to the $115 million in bonding authority being held, about $365 million worth of projects were left unfunded and another $250 million in funding is needed, according to Mark Sanborn, federal liaison to the state transportation department. The I-93 project is a priority that the state remains committed to, Sanborn said.

“Federal aid is a huge portion of the pie. Until we have more secure funding our hands are tied in terms of moving forward on a number of projects,” Sanborn said.

The officials asked Shaheen if anything could be done about regulations and formulas that make it difficult for small towns to compete for federal dollars to use on critical infrastructure projects.

Shaheen said she was looking for bipartisan solutions to the state's infrastructure problems. She urged them to contact members of the Legislature with their concerns.

“We need to move those funds off the sidelines and get this project going,” Shaheen said.

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