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Errors in Northern Pass plan irk DOT

State House Bureau

September 07. 2017 11:39PM

CONCORD — The state Department of Transportation has expressed frustration with the fact that errors and inaccuracies in Northern Pass route details are making the review take longer and diverting resources from routine highway maintenance and other DOT projects, especially during the busy construction season.

The DOT last spring issued its decision to provide a permit to Northern Pass, subject to specific conditions and state approval. Now the devil is in the details, and there are so many details.

Much of the debate over the 192-mile transmission route designed to bring hydroelectricity into New England from Canada has taken place from the bird’s eye view, with a focus on big-picture issues such as impact on property values and return to New Hampshire ratepayers.

But there are hundreds of smaller issues that have to be resolved if a 192-mile corridor is to be successfully built through the heart of the state, north to south. Plans have to accurately identify every culvert, drainage system, existing utility equipment or other types of public or private facilities that exist in the path of construction along DOT rights-of-way.

Plans acceptable to DOT for building under, around or over those facilities have to be approved in what is known as an “exception request.”

Melodie Esterberg, the DOT chief of design services, recently reported to a conference of DOT and Northern Pass officials that the process has not been going smoothly.

On several exception requests, she said, “locations had existing facilities that were incorrectly shown and described, or not shown on the plans.”

These errors make department personnel wonder about the accuracy of Northern Pass plans that identify existing facilities and the rights-of-way throughout the entire route, according to Esterberg.

At several locations the plans developed by Northern Pass conflict with existing facilities “without resolution to the conflict,” according to DOT records.

“The types of inaccuracies we are noting are existing features not shown on the plans or shown incorrectly, as well as right-of-way discrepancies,” said DOT spokesman Bill Boynton.

He provided pages of examples just from Plymouth along a stretch of Route 3. Existing drainage structures were not properly accommodated; existing culvert locations were not shown on the plan; the presence of guardrails was not accounted for; existing water mains were not identified; existing DOT rights-of-way were not correctly shown; and a sewer line was labeled as both 12-inch and 8-inch on the same plan.

Northern Pass has asked the DOT to schedule weekly meetings “as the goal is to be under construction by the first quarter of 2018,” according to DOT minutes of a July 18 conference, but David Rodrigue, DOT director of operations, said that simply is not practical.

“Mr. Rodrigue replied that the DOT cannot commit to weekly meetings due to the department’s busy season for operations and project development,” according to a record of the meeting.

This week the Site Evaluation Committee said it won’t make any decision on the proposed Northern Pass project until 2018.

DOT personnel have been told to make the Northern Pass review a priority.

“Working on numerous items at one time can be inefficient,” Boynton said. “Consequently some staff have been directed to work on Northern Pass one day a week, allowing them to focus on other tasks the remainder of the week. Based on the timing of other projects, staff may have been directed to make Northern Pass their priority, so that those resources are available when needed for other projects.”

Those “other projects” that are being affected include other utility work within DOT rights-of-way, access and driveway requests for other developments, OHRV permit requests and “numerous other items,” according to Boynton.

All of the personnel costs for these reviews are absorbed in the DOT budget, and not paid by the developers, he said. “At this time utility companies, developers and other third parties are not charged by DOT for the time that we spend reviewing their projects.”

Northern Pass spokesman Martin Murray says the problems alluded to in the project review are not atypical for such a massive undertaking.

“Our plans are supplemented as the design evolves to specifically address input from the DOT,” he said. “That’s the way the state’s permitting process is designed to work. We will continue to comply with the DOT’s requests and are fully confident that through this process a final design will be produced that meets the agency’s standards.”

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