PORTSMOUTH — Members of the New Hampshire House Public Works and Highway Committee got a firsthand look at the aging Sarah Mildred Long Bridge on Thursday as they work on the state’s 10-year highway plan.
The middle bridge connecting Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, is New Hampshire’s No. 1 red listed bridge, meaning it is the bridge most in need of improvement. It is scheduled to be replaced by 2017.
State Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement said funds in the first three years of the proposed highway plan are heavily weighted toward the bridge project, which is expected to cost at least $150 million to replace.
That cost is shared between the states of Maine and New Hampshire. The Maine Department of Transportation has been leading the replacement project as it approaches design completion, after New Hampshire led the effort to replace the nearby Memorial Bridge.
The two states had applied for federal TIGER grant funding to help defray the costs of the new middle bridge, but were unsuccessful. On Thursday, Clement said they plan to pursue a TIGER grant in the next round of funding as well.
Rep. David Campbell of Nashua chairs the house committee and said nearly half of its members are new, so getting them out to see the project they are discussing was critical to their understanding the need for the work.
Following the visit, committee members headed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where they scheduled to hear from shipyard commander Capt. William Greene and other shipyard leadership about the work done at the yard and the importance of the rail line to that work.
Rail line critical to shipyard
The rail line that runs underneath the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge is used solely by the shipyard a few times each year for the removal of spent nuclear fuel rods.
Campbell said the committee raised many questions about whether there were alternatives for removing the sensitive material. The rail line adds an additional $30 million or so to the price tag of the new lift bridge, but Campbell said they do not want to do anything to jeopardize the shipyard given the economic benefits it provides to both Maine and New Hampshire.
No one seemed to question that the bridge needs replacing.
“It looks like it’s pretty bad,” said Rep. Jim Webb of Derry.
Structural cracks are visible in the concrete as is rusting throughout the steel structures of the spans.
Webb said looking at it he wondered if something should not have been done sooner before the damage got so bad.
“Whatever we do build (to replace it), we are going to need a maintenance program in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Webb said.
Geno Marconi, port director of the N.H. Port Authority, said the tour was also a good opportunity for legislators from around the state to get a look at the Seacoast’s working port.
“The bridge and the port terminal are important parts of the transportation infrastructure in the state. They complement each other,” Marconi said.
The bridge design being proposed will open up more space at the terminal, allowing for better docking of large ships. It will also be better angled to accommodate the growing size of ships heading up the river and into Great Bay.