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Officials: Lebanon Falling Behind in Needed Bridge Repairs

West Lebanon — 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 affecton the regional economy, warn 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 Interstate 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, the city of Concord has five bridges on the state red list, and Manchester has seven.

N.H. DOT Director of Project Development Bill Cass said that the amount of red listed bridges in Lebanon “is indicative of the age of the infrastructure and (Interstate-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. Trailing

Miller said many of red listed bridges have been on the state DOT’s radar for a long time 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 the state of New Hampshire are inspected biannually, according to 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 over new revenue sources in the last legislative session helped bring the funding predictament over 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.”

According to Boynton, 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.

Route 4 Bridge

The increase in traffic is literally weighing on the bridges.

The Route 4 bridge that at one time carried Upper Valley residents across the Connecticut River connecting Lebanon’s Bridge Street to Hartford’s Maple Street, for example, had been under the watch of state officials since September 2008, when it was “downposted” to the weight limit of 10 tons, according to DOT Project Manager David Scott.

“That’s when we knew that things really had to hurry up,” Scott said.

In June 2009, DOT officials started planning for a temporary bridge, which was up and running by May 2010, according to Scott. While the temporary bridge was under construction, officials worked to acquire right-of-way on both sides of the river for the new bridge project, which went smoothly in New Hampshire but took longer in Vermont. Scott explained that the process of acquiring a right-of-way for Twin State bridge projects doesn’t get off the ground on the Vermont side of the river until the “all the plans are essentially ready to go,” which led to some delay.

According to Scott, DOT officials have completed plans for the bridge and have presented them to interested bidders. He said bidding for the project opens in August, and anticipated the project will be complete by the end of October 2015.

Rating System

In addition to the 10 bridges on the state’s red list, there are three bridges on the Lebanon municipal red list, two of which are currently being studied, according to Lebanon City Engineer Christina Hall.

The bridge carrying Route 120 traffic over the Mascoma River in downtown Lebanon, built in 1969, has been given a “sufficiency rating” of 66.1 percent. On that bridge, the deck is in poor condition, giving it a “four” on a nine-point scale of structural integrity. The superstructure is also rated poor, and the substructure is rated fair, or five out of nine. (A nine rating means the bridge is new, a one means the bridge is closed.)

Another bridge, carrying Trues Brook Road over Bloods Brook, was built in 1952 and rebuilt in 1986, but the deck is in even worse shape. That bridge has a satisfactory superstructure and substructure, but a deck that is in “serious condition,” earning only a three on the nine-point scale. The bridge has a sufficiency rating of 31 percent, which Hall contended is not as bad as other bridges in the state that are still carrying traffic.

“(New Hampshire has) so many red list bridges that are worse than (Trues Brook Road),” Hall said, who added that the bridge is being monitored closely and the Public Works Department would wait to hear from state DOT officials before deciding whether to close the bridge to traffic.

“We’ll know better once our engineers finish this assessment,” Hall said. “They’ve been working on it for a little while, so I think within a month we should know.”

However, Miller said that there is “absolutely” a cause for concern when the structural components of bridges receive a three, or even four rating.

Miller also illustrated a divide between the Upper Valley and the southern part of the state, identifying a “big elephant” in the $800 million Interstate 93 widening project, which is short about $250 million needed for completion.

“Until state government figures out how to fund that job and get it done, it’s going to be a tough slog for a lot of the bridges in other parts of the state, including ours, to be able to compete for that funding,” Miller said.

Highway Fund ‘Static’

But the funding needs are not limited to bridges. Alan Hanscom, district engineer at the DOT’s District 2 in Enfield, said his district has about 675 miles of roads to maintain, but only has the money to complete about 25 to 30 miles of resurfacing each year.

“It’s no secret that the highway fund income has been static 1991, and (construction costs) have not remained static,” Hanscom said.

He said that “hot top” pavement used to cost less than $30 per ton in the early 1990s, and is close to $75 per ton now.

“Instead of doing about 100 miles of paving that we may have done back then, we’re only doing about a third of that,” Hanscom said.

The state DOT is facing department-wide fiscal issues because of the budgeting shortfall. Boynton said the department’s current funding is about $30 million per year, but the department should be investing about $47 million “just to keep pat at the current level” of infrastructure maintenance.

Boynton added that the financial constraints could lead to layoffs, even though the department has fewer employees now than 25 years ago.

“We currently have about 1,629 employees,” Boynton said. “Without some sort of change (in funding), we could be looking at upwards of 600 (layoffs).”

Looking for Revenue

The $10.7 billion state budget was approved in a nearly unanimous vote in late June, but two proposals that would have funneled more money into highway and bridge projects were rejected in the process. A gas tax hike — backed by the House — was rejected by the Senate, and an expanded gambling proposal — favored in the upper chamber — faltered in the House.

State Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, has supported a gas tax increase in the past, but he said that he was against the most recent proposal because of the economic climate.

Ladd said that a sales tax and an income tax are off the table, so the question becomes, “What options does that really leave us?

“I thought gaming and a casino was the answer, but it’s not,” Ladd said. “So now we’re going to have to start rolling the sleeves up and finding where we can meet in terms of this need for the gas tax. I think down the road, that’s going to happen, but we weren’t ready for it this go-around.”

State Sen. David Pierce, D-Etna, who represents the majority of Upper Valley communities in the Senate, expressed similar optimism. He said discussions on raising the gas tax will likely surface once again in the upper chamber early next year.

“I think the forces are converging to say that something will be brought up in January,” Pierce said. “But I don’t know what it will be, and I don’t know how much it will raise.”

Pierce said that New Hampshire is “consistently ranked in the bottom five states for the quality of our infrastructure.

“And infrastructure is a key element to inviting new business or maintaining existing business in the state,” Pierce said. “We have to get ourselves out of the basement.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.