New Hampshire Views: For state, bumpy roads ahead
Initial plans to refurbish the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth estimated the cost at $12 million about a dozen years ago. State officials will mark the reopening of that bridge in the next few weeks, though it’s unlikely they’ll celebrate the final price tag of $84 million to build a totally new bridge.
In the years between the time the first plans were drawn up and when construction started, the condition of the bridge deteriorated beyond repair and the cost of replacement skyrocketed. Since that’s not a pattern that is likely to ever trend in the other direction, the bridge should serve as a cautionary tale for the tough decisions facing legislators when it comes to funding infrastructure improvements.
That issue – along with expanded Medicaid – stands as the single most important piece of unfinished business facing lawmakers when the House and Senate return in January.
As New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement wrote in a department newsletter last winter: “The state rates about a third of its 4,500 miles of roads in ‘poor’ condition and 140 bridges are on the so-called ‘red’ list. That doesn’t mean those bridges are in imminent danger of collapse – most are structurally deficient or functionally obselete. But the longer we wait to fix them, the more it’s going to cost.”
More recently, DOT officials have said that without an increase in revenue the agency faces a $50 million deficit in 2015 that could precipitate major layoffs – up to a third of its 1,750 employees.
Unfortunately, lawmakers painted themselves into a corner after the Senate killed Nashua Rep. David Campbell’s proposal to raise the state’s gas tax from 18 to 30 cents per gallon. (That would have been the first increase in the tax since 1991, when drivers paid about $1.44 for a gallon of gas.)
Some think the Senate killed the gas tax out of spite after the House jettisoned the casino gambling bill, but either way, it left lawmakers with limited options for funding the DOT if layoffs are to be avoided: They could try to raise the gas tax during the special legislative session that is expected to be called this fall to deal with Medicaid expansion, or maybe they could resurrect the enormously unpopular $30 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations; or perhaps the state will have to sell some of its assets, said Campbell, who chairs the House Public Works Committee. “Everything has to be brought back to the table,” he said.
The DOT is a big agency, and it’s easy to take a “they’ll manage” approach to their revenue issues. And, in fact, we don’t doubt that they will. But it’s how the rest of us might fare that ought to be cause for concern.
Will jobs be lost if the state is forced to cease work on the widening of Interstate 93? How bad will we allow our roads to get if the state has to scale back paving and maintenance? Officials say they’re already behind when it comes to keeping up with the status quo. Ideally the DOT wants to pave 500 miles of roads each year – about 10 percent of the total – but only has the money to do about 300 miles this year.
Unfortunately, there is a lot riding on the condition of our roads and bridges. As one DOT official told The Telegraph, “We exist to support the economy.”
The state needs to find a solution to its infrastructure needs, because there’s nothing economical about paying $84 million to replace a bridge that could have been refurbished a decade ago for a fraction of that price.