To The Daily Sun,
I am a lifelong resident of Gilford, writing to express my support for funding for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation for much needed maintenance, preservation, and reconstruction of the state's highways and bridges. I truly believe we are at a tipping point regarding the worsening condition of our transportation infrastructure, and how the extreme funding and personnel cuts that are proposed will put the state on a course where it becomes impossible to "catch up" on needed maintenance and reconstruction work, potentially putting public safety at risk.
Although I am writing as a private citizen, I have been employed by the NHDOT for nearly 38 years, presently as the state bridge engineer in the Bridge Design Bureau, and I have seen many changes during this time. When I started work, it was generally known that New Hampshire had the best transportation system in all of New England. This had been developed over many decades of investment by the NHDOT employees, elected officials, and the public, who all recognized that a good highway network encourages businesses to relocate to our state, thereby promoting economic development. It is also beneficial for the public to safely travel to and from work and other activities. And finally, it is good for tourists and other visitors to easily and safely travel throughout New Hampshire, supporting such a widespread and viable tourist industry. But now that is no longer the case.
Some of the roads and bridges owned and maintained by the state are truly falling apart, are becoming more difficult to travel on, and are making deliveries of goods and services more costly and requiring more time. It affects each of us as we travel to and from work, trying to avoid potholes, cracked pavement, and load-posted or deficient bridges. Vehicle repairs of damage caused by poor roadways are expensive, much more costly than the investment that an increase in registration fees or the gas tax/road toll would require.
I have worked in the Bridge Design Bureau for the majority of my career and have seen first-hand the worsening condition of the bridges on which we all travel each day. It is my opinion that this is a result of the continued misunderstanding, and perhaps complacency, by many elected officials and the general public regarding how the department is funded, how those funds are applied, and just how much money it takes to perform necessary bridge repairs, rehabilitations, and quite frequently, complete bridge replacements.
You have likely heard of the Red List of deficient state bridges, which includes bridges that have one or more major structural elements having a condition rating of "4 equals poor" or less, based on a scale of "9 equals excellent" to "0 equals closed/failing." Of the approximately 2,160 state bridges in New Hampshire, the Red List for 2013 totaled 142 bridges, for 2014 totaled 147 bridges, and for 2015 it now totals 153 bridges. Clearly, the Red List is growing at an unacceptable rate. In spite of NHDOT efforts that repair, rehabilitate, or replace 20 to 30 Red List bridges each year, they are deteriorating and being added to the Red List faster than current funding allows them to be addressed. To rehabilitate or replace all state Red List bridges would cost well in excess of $400 million, in today's dollars, which is not possible at current funding levels. Municipal bridges overall are in worse condition, with 344 of 1,687 bridges now on the Municipal Red List.
These bridges are inspected regularly and in accordance with national standards to ensure that they are still safe for public use, even though they have deficiencies. But as these deficiencies become worse, load restrictions are applied, and in some instances, bridges are closed permanently, waiting until funds can be made available to correct the deficiencies. These structural deficiencies restrict movement of people, goods, and services, again resulting in increased expenses and potential delays. If enough bridges become deficient, finding alternate routes becomes more problematic and even more costly to the public, i.e., all of us.
The above facts are presented here to show the present situation using current data readily available to the public. I encourage you to visit the Bridge Design web site at http://www.nh.gov/dot/org/projectdevelopment/bridgedesign/documents.htm where bridge data and Red List information for 2014 is available to see which bridges in your community are considered structurally deficient. This list is being updated (early April for 2015) based on inspection data from 2014.
There is similar information available on other department web pages presenting the condition of state roadways, as I am not familiar enough with that data to discuss it here. However, I do know that of the nearly 4,560 miles of state owned roadways in New Hampshire, about 1,600 miles are in "poor" condition, nearly 1,900 miles are in "fair" condition, and only about 1,000 miles — less than 25 percent — are in "good" condition. Based on current funding levels, it will be a long time before these ratios change in any measurable amount.
I fully recognize that, as a NHDOT employee, this message could be perceived as an effort to "save" my job, but that is not the reason for this letter. Insufficient funding for the NHDOT is a much bigger issue than solely being concerned with my job or any one job. It is an issue of supporting the number of employees that it takes to develop and deliver a construction and maintenance program that strives to preserve and improve our transportation system. Without the funds to enable these employees to do their jobs, much of our present construction and maintenance efforts will simply stop. In addition to that, I fully expect that we would face the very real likelihood of returning millions of dollars of federal funds to the Federal Highway Administration because we have such a small staff that we are unable to use funds allocated to New Hampshire, and the funds will be given to other states. Clearly, this course of action only leads to worsening conditions of our roads and bridges.
The number of employees at the NHDOT has already been greatly reduced due to funding limitations. As recently as 15 or so years ago, we had about 2,200 employees, whereas we now have about 1,700 employees. To now reduce this number by more than 40 percent would truly decimate the ability of the department to perform even minimal maintenance efforts. The consequences of such severe staffing reductions are not being exaggerated.
It has been suggested that a 7 cent or 8 cent increase in the gas tax/road toll is warranted to solve this funding problem. In support of this suggestion, I ask that you consider the actual cost to each driver if the gas tax is increased by 8 cents. If a vehicle gets 25 mpg and travels the average 12,000 miles/year, using 480 gallons, the cost to this driver for the additional 8 cents is $38.40 over the entire year, or $3.20 per month. That's equal to the cost of a small cup of coffee, once every two weeks. When compared to our other monthly expenses (cell phone, cable TV, electricity, heat, etc.) an additional $3.20 per month — about 10 cents a day — is truly a bargain.
Surely the residents of New Hampshire — and the tourists visiting us — can afford this small increase. I travel more than 70 miles each day simply to get to and from work, and I would be glad to pay more than the suggested 8 cent increase if it meant that our transportation system would be in better and safer condition. Compare this to the impact to local taxpayers if it becomes necessary for the municipalities to take on the cost of roadway maintenance (summer and winter) for roads in each community that the NHDOT is forced to abandon for lack of staff and funds to maintain them.
It is also important to note that gas prices have lowered significantly over the past 6 to 8 months, by at least $1.25/gal. If this same average driver traveled at the same rate for 8 months (8/12 times 12,000 mi. equals 8,000 mi), at 25 mpg, about 320 gallons would be used. Saving $1.25/gal due to the recent price reduction, results in a savings of $400 during this time. It would take 10 years of driving at the same annual rate, using 5,000 gallongs of gas, before the 8 cent increase would spend the $400 of savings that have been realized over just the past 8 months. Consider also that the price of gas can vary by 10 cents or more just between gas stations in Laconia and Concord. The 8 cents is a very reasonable amount, especially considering that all of it could go to our state DOT, and not to outside oil companies.
Some may feel that since the gas tax was increased 4.2 cents last year that certainly the NHDOT must not need an increase so soon. However, it is my understanding that all proceeds from the 4.2 cent increase are committed to construction (capital) projects (I-93, pavement resurfacing, municipal bridges) and that the increase did nothing to address the shortfall in the NHDOT's operating budget, which includes the funds to pay NHDOT employees and to purchase needed supplies to accomplish the development, construction, and maintenance of these projects. Without additional funds, these activities will simply stop.
We all inherited the fine transportation system that the prior generation was far-sighted enough to provide, and I truly believe that we have a responsibility to also provide a safe and efficient transportation network for future generations of New Hampshire residents and visitors. In my opinion, this is not an issue solely affecting Democrats or Republicans, but an issue that affects all of us, and it should be resolved in a bipartisan and cooperative manner. Through your support to invest in the state's transportation system and to restore funding to the NHDOT, you would become a part of fulfilling that responsibility.
Further details explaining transportation funding in New Hampshire are found in "The Citizen's Guide to the Transportation System", available at http://www.nh.gov/dot/media/documents/budget-presentation.pdf on the Department's web site http://www.nh.gov/dot/.
Mark W. Richardson, PE