It’s time for the state to think about the next 10-year Highway – er, sorry, Transportation Plan

Monitor staff
Published: 7/11/2021 1:00:05 PM

If you were going to spend $6 million improving Route 3 in Concord, should you concentrate on making things better for drivers or better for walkers and bicyclists?

That’s the sort of decision that goes into the more than 800 projects listed in what is officially known as the state’s 10-year Transportation Plan. The two-year process for updating the plan begins with a public hearing Friday.

The current transportation plan covering 2021 through 2030 includes $6.14 million for widening Route 3 between Garvin Falls and Airport roads. While this may make things a little safer for drivers, the point is to provide shoulders and paths to serve people who want to travel the corridor without getting in their car.

That’s part of what is known as “active transportation,” a catchall term for any form of human movement that doesn’t require an individual powered vehicle, almost always by walking or riding a bicycle. In the post-pandemic era, it may get more attention.

“I think the pandemic has encouraged people to get outside more,” said Bill Watson, administrator of the Bureau of Planning and Community Assistance in the NH Department of Transportation. “With that, we see an increase in non-vehicle use by people. A lot is recreational based, but certainly some of it is transportation-based as well.”

Active transportation has long been a stepchild in the 10-year Transportation Plan compared to money spent on highways, roads and bridges. In fact, under state law the governor has to give his proposal to the House Publics Works and Highways Committee, not a transportation committee, which may explain why the plan is referred to as the “10-Year Highway Plan” on at least one link on state government website.

The question is whether the push to lower transportation emissions in the face of climate change, combined with people’s changing habits during the pandemic, will alter the car-centric focus or whether we’re locked into that pattern because of how we’ve built our transportation networks and the way we pay for them.

The state has certainly seen some effort to add more transportation options, especially in cities.

“We’ve become more general, as part of the recognition around modes of transportation other than cars,” said Watson. He pointed to an example in Concord involving a possible Loudon Road bridge project.

“The city is looking at a number of different options, not only addressing some of the odd geometric concerns (for drivers) but also to promote more bicycle travel along Loudon Road – by widening it or stealing a lane to allow for a dedicated bicycle lane or all-purpose lane,” he said.

However, previous discussion about a bicycle lane on Loudon Road has provoked loud opposition from drivers and some business owners, reflecting the difficulties facing active transportation in a city built around car and truck traffic.

The current 10-Year Transportation Plan includes about $180 million in active transportation projects, most of which involve widening or adjusting roads to allow concurrent use. The plan calls for spending at least $322 million each year over the next decade. The 10-Year Plan also includes spending on airports and rail.

Active transportation projects are part of a planning philosophy called Complete Streets. The state Department of Transportation’s Complete Streets website describes it as for “safe access to destinations for everyone, regardless of age or ability, or mode of transportation, when feasible. Depending on the street that could translate into a wider sidewalk, bike lanes, safe crossing opportunities, bus lanes, median islands, roundabouts and more.”

As might be expected, cost and revenue are major drivers in decision making and they often limit the ability to spend on active transportation. Much of the plan is supported by federal highway funds, including an average of $107 million a year for paving and bridges, while another $67 million a year or so is expected for the state’s turnpike system, which has virtually no ability to support active transportation.

“Moving away from car-centric is a very important step, but our revenue is still based on vehicle-centric revenues,” said Watson.

One bright spot, Watson said, is the possibility of a federal highway bill being passed through Congress which could open up more matching funds and grants.

“We’ve been without a long-term federal bill for a while. To have the stability of a federal bill in the near term would be very exciting, going into a 10-year plan,” he said. “There might be an increase in funding for New Hampshire.”

The Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation, made up of the five Executive Councilors and the Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, will hold a public meeting on Friday, July 16, at 9 a.m. to discuss the development of the Draft 2023-2032 10-Year Transportation Improvement Plan.

The meeting will be held at the Department of Transportation Room 114, 7 Hazen Drive.

It will also be online via Zoom.

For more information, check the DOT website at nh.gov/dot/org/projectdevelopment/planning/typ/index.html.

 Editor’s note: This story was changed to correct Bill Watson's last name.


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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