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Judge Delays Expansion of I-93 From N.H. to Mass.

Wed January 23, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

Originally, it was going to be expanded to serve the needs of the traveling population.

Now, it is being delayed ad infinitum because it likely will increase that same population.

In a decision that favors the environmentalist cause and ultimately will translate to untold tens of millions of dollars in delays, a federal judge has ruled that state and federal highway officials must consider the population growth that will come if Interstate 93 is widened and expanded through the corridor running from Manchester, N.H, to the Massachusetts line.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Paul Barbadoro found that the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) used outdated information to evaluate the potential population growth in its environmental impact study. Judge Barbadoro directed the DOT to re-examine the impact that might be caused by widening the congested road from four lanes to eight and submit a supplemental filing.

Environmental Lawsuit

The decision comes as a result of a many-point lawsuit initiated by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which many planners have called “frivolous.” The organization filed its original suit last year, stalling the project. Among the key points in the CLF suit was that commuter rail should be an integral component of the project and that the DOT should be required to perform further study on this mode of transportation.

On this point Judge Barbadoro disagreed, observing that the DOT had performed a satisfactory investigation of rail service and that further study was not warranted.

The ruling was a big victory for environmentalists who argue that widening the road to four lanes each way between Manchester and the Mass. border would itself cause population growth that will affect the usefulness of the widening, congest secondary roads and cause air pollution.

The CLF argued that a study not considered by officials in their initial planning — and never presented for public comment — estimated that the widening would be responsible for attracting some 35,000 new residents, beyond unrelated population growth, to towns along the highway corridor by 2020.

The group has argued long and loud that because of this omission, Judge Barbadoro should have required the state to start from scratch in developing its Environmental Impact Statement. It wanted a total reassessment of the decision to exclude commuter rail as an alternative and to reanalyze the environmental effects of the expansion on land use, water quality and wildlife.

Barbadoro disagreed in September, saying even though planners used outdated population forecasts for their traffic projections, they carefully studied commuter rail before ruling it out, and conducted a “reasonably thorough analysis” of the road’s environmental impacts.

However, in his copious 86-page ruling, he ordered the state and FHA to complete a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that specifically considers the population forecast and whether the widening actually would relieve congestion on the highway. The new study also must consider the effects the additional residents would have on secondary roads and air quality.

“Clearly, we’ve got more work to do,” said Transportation Department spokesman Bill Boynton at the time of the ruling. “What exactly that means, we are still trying to figure out. It’s safe to say that any I-93 projects slated for 2008 probably will not be able to go forward until we get this done. The key for us is to move ahead so we can get to the construction work and address not only red-list bridges but other needs along that corridor.”

Adding $3.75M per Month

CLF staff attorney Tom Irwin said at the time of the decision, that it “highlights” how flawed the NHDOT’s planning had been for the massive project, adding that the judge challenged the main justification for the expanded highway — that a wider one would relieve traffic congestion.

According to the DOT, updating the data might require as much as a year. Further, I-93 projects other than widening will be left on hold, including work in Windham, Mass., and Salem, Mass., to expand interchanges and repair red-listed bridges. There are 18 of the latter within the 20-mi. stretch of I-93 slated for widening. However, seven of these bridges will likely be worked on anyway, owing to the urgent nature of the repairs.

Delays, inflation and rapidly escalating construction costs will drive up the project to obscene numbers. It’s planning has already been on the books for approximately 20 years and with costs within the highway construction industry climbing at an approximate rate of 6 to 7 percent annually, the project’s current price tag — $750 million — could go up by approximately $3.75 million per month.

The section between Exits 1 and 3 on the Interstate will cost $300 million alone, transportation officials estimate.

Work on a bridge in Salem has already begun. Other work includes a redesign of Exit 5 in Londonderry, N.H., and construction of two park-and-ride lots for bus service. Without more money, finishing the highway from Windham to Manchester could take 10 years or longer.

Irwin insisted that the state would be right back into a commuter bottleneck by the year 2020, despite the widening road. The CLF was hoping for a court mandate that the DOT consider rail in its traffic congestion mitigation equation.

“If you want to boil it down, we believe the DOT engaged in planning with blinders on. They only looked at the highway, not secondary roads, and they didn’t truly look at rail as a solution, which we continue to believe is a solution to congestion,” Irwin has said.

Project Background

The widening of a 20-mi. segment of I-93 between Exits 1 and 5 from the Mass. state line to Manchester is one of the most ambitious projects that the NHDOT has ever undertaken.

According to the NHDOT Web site, it is needed to reduce congestion and improve safety. Traffic frequently backs up between the state line and Manchester, especially during morning and evening rush hours.

This section of I-93 was built in the early 1960s to accommodate 60,000 to 70,000 vehicles per day. In 1997, average traffic volumes were in excess of 100,000 vehicles per day in Salem, with segments between interchanges two and five carrying up to 80,000 vehicles per day.

With so many cars currently using only two lanes, drivers are forced to drive closer to each other, limiting their ability to react and maneuver to avoid an incident in front of them. When an incident does occur, drivers often have nowhere to go, which results in multiple car accidents. This chronic congestion also can directly affect emergency responders, such as ambulance, fire trucks and police, to be able to quickly get to an emergency.

All these combined create increased risks to the traveling public, said the DOT. Projections indicate that traffic will increase to 140,000 vehicles per day in Salem by the year 2020.

The original I-93 widening project, approved in 2005, called for most of the widening to happen at once. But times have changed. Earlier this year, Carol Murray, who was the transportation commissioner when the project was approved, was forced to resign. In her place, Gov. John Lynch brought back former Transportation Commissioner Charles O’Leary, who served from 1990 to 1996. O’Leary said the I-93 widening project — which comes under the umbrella of the current 10-year plan — is too big.

“If we add no new projects, it would take us 35 years to complete the plan that is currently in law because the cost of these projects (which include the I-93 widening project) have now far exceeded the costs of available funding,” Boynton said.

The cost of funding the current 10-year plan is only one cog in the financial wheel that is about to fall off at the DOT. Commissioner O’Leary has repeatedly painted a grim financial picture for his department, and he said unless there are increases in tolls or the gas tax, people will be out of work.

“We are facing a funding crisis in just about every aspect of the DOT,” Boynton said. “The I-93 project remains the number one priority, but the funding limitations we have will not allow us to build it at the same pace as we had projected.”

Salem Officials Frustrated

The newest court delay has left many elected officials in Salem frustrated.

“Officials in Salem have supported the widening of I-93 for many years … I remember going to meetings back in the 1990s and [I] felt the project was imminent; it has been much anticipated,” said Ross Moldoff, planning director for the town of Salem, when the decision was rendered. “The tremendous backups at Exit 1, where the road narrows from four to two lanes [north from Massachusetts border to Salem] — the selectman and planning board and groups involved in planning would all say this [widening] is what we need.”

Moldoff doesn’t buy the argument from the CLF that the widening will burden the community because of induced growth.

“I’m one who is skeptical,” Moldoff said. “I don’t know how you can project the population will increase.” Moldoff said residents in Salem live there because they like the community, not because of a highway.

“It doesn’t make any difference if they widen it or not,” Moldoff said. “There is growth and there is only so much land left to build on; I don’t think its population is going to increase just because you add a lane or two.”

Once the courts are satisfied, the I-93 widening project will begin. Commissioner O’Leary has called for a phasing in of the project.

“It’s been redefined already, the commissioner is looking to phase it in because he doesn’t want a 20-mile work zone and he doesn’t have the funding,” Boynton said.

Irwin said one study estimates a rail line along Interstate 93 would cost close to $1 billion, while reviving a partly abandoned line between Manchester and Lawrence, Mass., would be less than $150 million.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts have joined in a study of transit options that would connect Manchester to Boston. That report is due in April 2008. CEG

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