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Officials: Lebanon falling behind in needed bridge repairs

About 29,000 vehicles cross the bridges on Interstate 89 carrying traffic over Hardy Hill Road on the outskirts of Lebanon each day, causing a slow but steady deterioration of the infrastructure that could eventually have a profound affect on the regional economy, warned state and area officials.

“Just think about the scenario if one of those bridges was downposted (to a lower weight limit) or closed,” said Nate Miller, planning director at the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission. “How would that affect how we move and do business in western New Hampshire? It would have a huge impact, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”

A shortfall of funding at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has slowed the pace of major construction projects in the state and deferred maintenance on other rehab efforts, leaving bridge and highway officials struggling to keep up with the aging infrastructure.

The issue is perhaps best crystallized by the many bridges of Lebanon, the city in the heart of the Upper Valley bisected by I-89 as well as the Mascoma River, which largely follows the same path as the highway through
city limits. Of Lebanon’s nearly 60 bridges, 13 have been deemed worth monitoring more closely.

Ten of the city’s bridges are on the state Department of Transportation’s “red list,” and another three are on the municipal red list – a designation used to monitor bridges with known structural deficiencies. By comparison, Concord has five bridges on the state red list and Manchester has seven.

DOT Director of Project Development Bill Cass said the number of red-listed bridges in Lebanon “is indicative of the age of the infrastructure and (I-89) in particular.”

“My sense is that many of the I-89 bridges were built about or just after (the mid-1960s) and are subsequently at the end of their design life,” Cass said.

N.H. ‘falling behind’

Miller said many of red listed bridges have been on the state DOT’s radar for a long time and have not yet been repaired. One bridge in particular, carrying Route 4 over the Northern Rail Trail and the Mascoma River, was flagged in the late 1980s.

“As a state, we’re falling behind,” Miller said. “We’re like a swimmer that’s treading water, but not treading water very effectively.”

A look at the recent history of the state’s red list shows that the number of state bridges in need of repair is hardly budging. Even as projects are taken off the list, more are added. There were 144 bridges on the state red list at the end of 1997, a number that dropped as low as 137 in 2006 and 2007 before leveling back up to 140 at the end of 2011.

All bridges in New Hampshire are inspected biannually, said DOT spokesman
Bill Boynton. A bridge on the red list, however, gets bumped up to semi-annual inspections.

But Boynton stressed that just because a bridge is structurally deficient doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.

“It may have a deteriorating bridge deck that will still safely carry traffic, but there’s a more frequent need for repairs,” Boynton said. “Basically, a structurally deficient bridge has one or more of its major structural elements needing to be addressed at some point.”

Boynton said that the
gas-tax-versus-casino debate about new revenue sources in the last legislative
session helped bring the funding predicament for the state’s infrastructure projects to the fore, but there are still major funding issues left to resolve, as evidenced by the constant number on the red list.

“At best, we are holding our own,” Boynton said. “And at worst, we are definitely slipping in terms of the need to maintain our existing system.”

Boynton said neglecting regularly to maintain the bridges leads to more costly repairs down the line. He said the average age of a bridge in New Hampshire is 54 years old, and half of the state’s bridges were built before 1976. Boynton added that there are 2,143 bridges in the state, with 140 or more on the state red list and 353 on municipal red lists.

On top of that, Boynton said only half of the state’s bridges were designed to meet “modern loads,” and traffic has risen by 33 percent in the last 20 years.

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