LACONIA — Projects that would expand natural gas service and create better paths for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists were highlighted at a Lakes Region Chamber seminar Friday as part of national Infrastructure Week.
This was one of more than 100 events held across the nation to focus attention on the need to improve roads, rail, bridges, airports, water and sewer systems, the energy grid, the communication system and other critical facilities.
In a 2017 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a grade of “C-” to New Hampshire’s infrastructure, compared to a “D+” for the nation at large.
The report noted that 12.8 percent of the state’s bridges were structurally deficient. It said significant investments have been made to improve the reliability of the state’s electrical system but issues remain concerning price and future supply.
A 4 cents per gallon gasoline tax increase was approved in 2014 in the state to help offset some of the costs of deferred investments in roads. Improvements have been made to Interstate 93 and Spaulding Turnpike, but revenue from the tax has eroded as new vehicles use less fuel, the report said.
Speaking at the chamber event, Jeff Hayes, executive director of the Lakes Region Planning Commission, said lack of funding has been a major issue when it comes to improving roads and creating pedestrian and bicycling paths.
“Most of the funding that we have in the state is federal funding,” he said. “A large part of it goes to I-93 widening. That’s a major priority that takes up a lot of the oxygen or money in the room.
“Our argument is that we know we have to focus on the interstate but as we widen the lanes to get cars further up the interstate into the state, we have to deal with the transportation impacts when people get up here.”
He said past infrastructure planning affected Laconia.
“One of the big things about transportation in the Lakes Region is that 93 bypassed the cities of Laconia and Franklin,” he said. “They don’t have direct interstate access. It’s a little strange things were done that way.”
He said Route 106 serves to connect the region to the interstate, but it has its own problems, including a difficult circulation plan in downtown Laconia.
On the positive side, Hayes said pedestrian projects have received funding in Franklin, Ashland and Moultonborough.
“These projects really increase the quality of life and are great for our communities, but funding is limited,” he said. “There’s been a lot of focus on age-friendly development.
“Millennials want better biking; older people, along with everybody else, need to be able to maneuver their way around downtown and out of stores and things like that, so. We need to work more on bike and pedestrian planning.”
Alan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail Committee and a proponent of expanding the path, was one of about a dozen people at the event in the Beane Conference Center.
“Jeff, I’m trying,” he said.
“I know you are, Alan,” Hayes said. “It’s not easy, as Alan will attest and I know.”
WOW Trail backers would like to extend the public pedestrian and bicycling path from Lakeport to The Weirs through a railroad corridor, but have faced opposition from some who live near the tracks and others.
Hayes said a map has been done showing gaps in the region’s bike and pedestrian system.
“Basically, the whole region is a gap,” he said. “When you have all these red-listed bridges and all these crumbling roads, there is often not a lot of support for the bells, whistles and extras like sidewalks and bikes, which may be short-sighted but it’s what the situation is.”
Also speaking at the seminar was Carmen Lorentz, executive director of Lakes Region Community Developers. She also called for more public investment in infrastructure.
“Prior to this job, I worked for the state of New Hampshire and it was very eye-opening to me to see how very little our state invests in ourself," she said.
"We use all the federal programs we can. We often leave a lot of federal money on the table because, again, as a state, we kind of refuse to invest in ourself.”
She said people need to realize that housing is a type of infrastructure that needs support.
”We are largely a tourism community,” she said. “Those jobs do not pay a lot of money. So we have needs for lower-end housing stock that is affordable to all of those people who work in our restaurants, our hotels and all of our small tourism businesses.”
Howell “Huck” Montgomery, manager of government affairs for Liberty Utilities, spoke of the state’s need to improve its natural gas infrastructure.
His company is backing the Granite Bridge Project, which would put a new pipeline in a state transportation right-of-way to bring natural gas from the Seacoast to the central part of the state. The project also would include a liquified natural gas storage facility.
“Natural gas is very important to the New Hampshire economy,” he said. “This critical infrastructure is designed to ensure that our customers who want access to this clean and low-cost service can do so.”
The project is being considered by state regulators.
Meanwhile, Eversource, the state’s largest electrical utility, is appealing to the state Supreme Court a state board’s rejection of its Northern Pass project, a 192-mile electric transmission line that would have brought hydroelectric power from Canada to New England to address the future supply needs of the region.
Kaitlyn Woods, a spokesman for Eversource, said, "Over the past 10 years, we have invested more than $1 billion to enhance the reliability and resiliency of our electric system, which is delivering direct benefits to our customers by significantly reducing the frequency and duration of power outages and supporting a clean energy future in New Hampshire.
"From 2008 to 2018, the frequency of outages experienced by a typical customer decreased by 36 percent; the system average duration of an interruption decreased by over 40 percent from 205.6 minutes to 119.9 minutes; and the average number of customers impacted by a system interruption decreased from 70 to 55, or by 22 percent.
"Continued investments in strengthening the electric grid will help build on that progress and create the backbone needed to reliably and seamlessly connect more clean energy resources that customers want onto our system."