Washed-out Warner bridge will be replaced; debate continues over N.H. transportation funding
Warner got lucky last week.
Heavy rain washed out a bridge over Willow Brook on Bartlett Loop, just off Pumpkin Hill Road, last Monday night. The crossing is now closed, and town officials say the bridge e_SEnD really, a large culvert – will need to be replaced with a sturdier structure.
But it could have been worse. No one was hurt. There are only a handful of houses on the dirt road, and another bridge connects it with Pumpkin Hill Road less than a half-mile away. And because officials had already planned to replace the culvert, state aid that will pay 80 percent of the project’s cost is available immediately.
“It’s a good example of what can happen in a town in matter of a few hours,” said Jim Bingham, Warner’s town administrator. “We were fortunate in that this particular culvert is not interfering with vital traffic or business. But a similar thing can happen to almost any town, and I think the average resident may not be fully aware of the high cost of meeting new federal and state requirements in terms of replacing roads and bridges. And when they’re let go, the cost is even greater.”
Warner isn’t the only New Hampshire community where roads or bridges were damaged by flooding over the last couple weeks, but the state’s larger infrastructure problem long predates this summer. In towns and cities across the state, there are roads in need of paving and bridges in need of repair or replacement – but too little money to pay for all those projects.
Chris Clement, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, has said just 19 percent of state roads are in good condition. Nearly 500 state and municipal bridges are on the red list, which generally means they don’t meet current standards and are a priority for repair or replacement. Big-ticket capital projects are squeezed, too: Clement warned last month that the widening of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire will run out of money in late 2015.
Legislators tried but failed this year to agree on a new source of funding for transportation infrastructure projects. The Senate proposed expanded gambling, a casino with some revenue earmarked for road and bridge projects, but the House rejected the bill. The Senate in turn killed a House bill that would have increased New Hampshire’s gas tax for the first time since 1991, phasing in a 12-cent increase over several years.
“The consensus is there on the need – that’s really important,” said Gov. Maggie Hassan in an interview last week. “Now, step two is, let’s build consensus on how we’re going to pay for it.”
The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate will try again in 2014. Bills will be filed by senators and representatives this fall for consideration next year, and lawmakers have said transportation funding will be on their agenda.
“We all recognize there’s an issue there, and we said we would deal with it this coming year,” said Senate President Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican.
Over the last couple weeks, heavy rains damaged a number of roads and bridges in the Upper Valley and southwestern New Hampshire, in addition to the Warner bridge, said DOT spokesman Bill Boynton. Damage from flooding in Lebanon alone was estimated at $6.5 million, according to the Valley News.
But for roads and bridges across the state, deterioration has been a long-term process. In Concord, officials have spent years preparing to rehabilitate or replace the Sewalls Falls Bridge, which was built in 1915. It was closed again for repairs last week, though it’s now open.
Bridges can be expensive, especially for towns with small public-works budgets, so the state offers an aid program that pays 80 percent of the cost of replacing municipal-owned spans. But there’s much demand and not enough money.
“We do have a pretty significant backlog, upwards of 10 years, for our state aid bridge program in terms of the demand versus the available funds,” Boynton said.
The culvert that washed out last week on Bartlett Loop in Warner was built in 1985 and was large enough that it was considered a bridge by the state. It was on the red list, since it was corroding and too small for the brook’s flow.
When the heavy rain came, the water overran the culvert and washed away the road above, slicing a neat channel that has closed it to traffic.
But town officials had already been talking to DOT about replacing the bridge, as recently as the last few weeks. Money should be available this fiscal year for the project, they said.
“If you have to have a bit of bad luck, you might as well have it with a bunch of good luck,” Bingham said.
David Hartman, chairman of the Warner selectmen, said they don’t yet know how much it will cost but “I suspect it will be in the low hundreds of thousands” of dollars. They’ll likely install a prefabricated open-bottom box culvert, he said, increasing capacity so the bridge can better withstand big storms.
Hartman said spending money to maintain infrastructure may not be sexy, but it’s important to towns like Warner.
“This is the game,” he said. “This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where the water meets the culvert.”
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)