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N.H. Towns Face Tough Choices Over Aging Bridges

Municipal bridges become time bombs in strapped-for-cash infrastructure systems.

Fri May 31, 2013 - Northeast Edition

FRANCESTOWN, N.H. (AP) Traffic flows through Francestown on a narrow road with patches of cracked asphalt and a notorious blind left at one end, leaving Jim Howe and his wife, who live on the road, feeling as though they’re playing "some horrible video game" every time they pull out of their driveway.

The closing of two nearby bridges created the detour. They’re among nearly 500 bridges across New Hampshire that are deteriorating, including some built more than 100 years ago that are still in use, according to state Department of Transportation data. But money to pay for repairs over the next decade is already spoken for, leaving towns not on the list with the tough choice of whether to pay for bridge repairs themselves, or close their bridges and wait for state money.

"Municipal bridges are the time bombs in our infrastructure system," said Rep. David Campbell of Nashua, chairman of the House Public Works and Highway Committee.

Twenty-four cities and towns have four or more bridges that are deficient in some way. Since 2009, the state has recommended closing 38 bridges. Each closure sends a ripple effect through the community, endangering and inconveniencing residents, constricting the local economy and straining budgets.

"The whole state is in the same condition," town Road Agent Gary Paige said, standing on one of the closed bridges in Francestown. "We’re bridge-poor."

In Francestown, voters decided at a town meeting that a temporary fix of reopening one lane on the larger of the two closed bridges is preferable to waiting for state aid to replace it — even if it means more than doubling a property tax increase.

After more than two hours of debate, those fed up with the closures prevailed over those preaching patience, who argued the town could wait roughly 16 months for state aid to replace the bridge altogether. The temporary fix is likely to cost $70,000, a significant increase to a budget of close to $1.5 million.

It was likely the first salvo in what could become routine fare at town meeting in Francestown. Eight of the town’s 14 bridges are listed as deficient, but only four are eligible for state aid. At the next scheduled inspection, town officials worry they might learn more bridges need to be closed.

"All of these bridges that are in the program are critical to these towns and have a direct impact on resident’s lives," Campbell said.

But getting state aid is a questionable prospect. Municipalities can apply for state assistance to repair or replace deficient bridges through the Department of Transportation’s bridge aid program. Proposals that get accepted are funded on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the state pays 80 percent. The project queue already stretches into the next decade.

Bridge repairs are paid for through the state highway fund, which has run a deficit for nearly 10 years. Costs have ballooned because of the skyrocketing price of materials and equipment coupled with dwindling gas tax revenues due to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The legislature has used a series of budgetary patches to shore up the highway fund’s deficit, including selling bonds on highway obligations and temporarily raising the Registry of Motor Vehicles surcharge. Most recently, lawmakers sold a stretch of Interstate 95 to the Bureau of Turnpikes. The $120 million was supposed to be paid over 20 years, but the lion’s share is already spent, with the remainder included in the two-year budget that starts in July.

"If something happens [to a bridge], there’s just no money to fix them," Campbell said.

The two primary revenue options being considered by lawmakers to bolster the highway fund are deeply politicized. One is a House proposal, backed by Campbell, to phase in increases of taxes on gas and diesel. Members of the Republican-controlled Senate have declared such a proposal dead on arrival.

The other option is to legalize casino gambling and funnel a portion of the tax revenue into the highway fund. The Senate passed a gambling bill allowing one casino, 5,000 video slots and 150 table games. Gov. Maggie Hassan has thrown her support behind the Senate gambling bill, but it faces a difficult test in the House, which has never approved video slots.

During the bridge debate in Francestown, Mark Pitman came out as a reluctant supporter of a temporary fix.

"Whether the bridge is a smart expenditure or a bad expenditure, I don’t know," he told fellow residents, "but we’d be taking our future in our own hands and not expecting the state to come up with money."

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