Report: Maine, NH’s rural roads are suffering

Posted Sept. 03, 2011, at 10:20 a.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — A high number of Maine and New Hampshire’s rural roads and bridges are in poor or deficient condition, according to a report from a national transportation research group released Thursday.

The release of the report, which ranks Maine 15th and New Hampshire ninth-worst in the country for the poor condition of its rural roads, and 12th and 11th-worst, respectively, for deficient rural bridges, comes several days after some bridges and roads were destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene.

The annual TRIP report, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland,” finds rural roads and bridges face significant challenges, including traffic fatality rates far higher than other roads and highways.

Gary Abbott, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of New Hampshire, said, “For me, (the report) is not surprising, knowing where we live and what we deal with, the weather and frost heaves and secondary roads and limited funding. These rural roads are in need of repair.”

New Hampshire has some great roads, particularly the turnpike system, which is in better condition than those in many other states, and the Department of Transportation does a great job, he said. “But when we get out to the secondary roads, we have got some real issues.”

Playing catch-up

N.H. Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Boynton said generally the agency does not dispute TRIP reports because they are based on information gathered from DOTs throughout the country.”

“Certainly, we recognize that our needs far outweigh our available resources,” he said. “Maintaining the existing system and the red-list bridges are the top priorities. We started to catch up with the stimulus money; unfortunately, we need about 10 years of that funding to get where we want to be.”

He noted two major east-west highways in the North Country suffered major damage from Irene, preventing through travel.

“That’s very disruptive to commerce and travel,” he said.

In rural areas, Boynton said, “there may be low volume, but the rural roads may be a key lifeline for towns around the state. Alstead was a good example of how one road can impact a community.”

Severe flooding six years ago destroyed the main road into town, isolating the community.

Downward trend

The TRIP report notes rural roads and bridges in America have significant deficiencies. In 2008, 12 percent of the nation’s major rural roads were rated in poor condition and another 43 percent were rated in mediocre or fair condition, while in 2010, 13 percent of the nation’s rural bridges were structurally deficient and 10 percent were functionally obsolete, according to the report.

In the 2011 report, 21 percent of New Hampshire’s rural roads were in poor conditions and 15 percent of the rural bridges were deficient. Vermont had the worst rural road conditions in the country, with 36 percent in poor condition — and that was before Irene devastated the state’s transportation infrastructure — and Pennsylvania the worst for deficient bridges, with 28 percent.

Highway Plan

Boynton said attention is focused on the major travel corridors, the interstates and turnpikes, but “New Hampshire remains a relatively rural state with a lot of people very dependent on rural roads.”

The state’s 10-Year Highway Plan lays out the state and local transportation projects that will be funded in the next decade. Many of the projects at the end of plan, which is updated every two years, are never funded.

Abbott noted the state’s gas tax and auto registration rates, which pay for non-turnpike highway and bridge construction and repairs, have not been changed since 1992.

Gasoline tax revenues have been flat for the past three or four years, he said, as cars are more efficient and use less gasoline. That means the highway fund has taken a real hit from inflation, Abbott said.

Federal dollars

Also of concern, he said, is without Congress reauthorizing the federal highway program, projects using federal money could come to a halt at the end of the month — much as airport projects did in July, when Congress failed to reauthorized that program.

Boynton said the state may also lose 30 percent of its federal highway money, which has averaged between $140 million to $150 million a year.

“Dropping by a third, will have a significant impact on our ability to make improvements or do rehabilitation projects we want to get to,” Boynton said.

“TRIP reports are good in many ways, because they highlight the areas of the transportation system that need investment,” Boynton said. “We work within the financial constraints we have. It’s not just a New Hampshire problem, it’s a nationwide problem and the kinds of interruptions in the system we’ve had this week highlights the needs for a system that is in good shape.”

(c)2011 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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