HAMPTON — The Neil R. Underwood Bridge connecting Hampton to Seabrook Beach carries 18,000 vehicles a day during peak summer months, according to Department of Transportation officials.
It is also No. 1 on New Hampshire’s red list for bridges requiring major work after first being added to the list in 1999.
On Thursday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, visited the bridge as the backdrop to tout the Senate’s $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill she helped negotiate. The bill sets aside $40 billion for bridge repair and replacement as part of a $110 billion investment into roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects. New Hampshire would receive $255 million over five years through the legislation, Shaheen said.
“I wanted to highlight the importance of investing in infrastructure," Shaheen said. "This is a bridge that's not just critical for safety issues for us and for the economy. (The bill is the) biggest investment in bridges since the interstate highway system.”
Construction for the new bridge is expected to begin 2024 and it will be built just west of the existing bridge with an anticipated completion date in 2026, after which the old bridge will be removed. The estimated cost to build the bridge will be roughly $50 million in federal monies. Those federal funds are not included within the bi-partisan infrastructure bill, DOT officials said.
Jennifer Reczek, a DOT project manager, said the bridge is proposed to be a fixed structure that widens the navigable channel beneath the bridge from 40 feet to 150 feet and raises the vertical clearance an additional 48 feet. According to past design proposals, it will be 50 feet wide, still feature two travel lanes, but offer 8-foot-wide shoulders for bikers and six-foot-wide sidewalks for pedestrians.
“We are about 50% of the way through the design process,” Reczek said. “We have our environmental documentation through the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process that we are working to wrap up this fall, and we’ll kick off the final design (process) later this year with about two years of advertising.”
According to DOT, the Hampton-Seabrook bridge, built in 1949, is rated a 4, out of a possible 9, on the red list. That means it requires regular inspection every six months by DOT, Reczek said. The existing bridge had its deck replaced in 2010 and it required emergency repairs to the drawbridge span’s mechanical system in 2018.
However, town Selectman Regina Barnes raised the issue of the Hampton water and sewer lines running under the existing bridge, and the costs associated with moving them when the bridge is replaced. Shaheen said the infrastructure package will make funds available to state revolving funds, such as the New Hampshire Clean Water Revolving Fund administered by the state Department of Environmental Services that could be utilized for the project.
One major sticking point to passing the bipartisan infrastructure plan is the dual-track $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package also negotiated in the Senate, which are both in the House now. The larger budget reconciliation package includes investment in childcare, Medicare, immigration and measures to address the climate crisis, among other items.
According to reports, conservative Democrats in the House have resisted drawing up their version of the reconciliation bill until members have voted on the Senate infrastructure plan. However, progressive House members have said they will refuse to support the infrastructure plan unless the reconciliation bill is voted on alongside the infrastructure bill, according to reports. President Joe Biden has expressed his desire to sign both bills.
Shaheen said discussions remain ongoing on what the specifics will be in the budget reconciliation bill and what the final dollar amount will be. She said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has promised to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill later this month.
However, Shaheen said both bills provide critically necessary upgrades to both physical and human infrastructure. She warned her colleagues on the fence to not look at the sticker price of the reconciliation package, but instead to focus on what both bills set out to accomplish.
“However (the House) can get it done, I’m certainly interested in seeing that happen,” Shaheen said. “We need to make these investments, we’re falling behind our adversaries, like China, and behind some of our allies, like Europe. It’s important to make investments not just in physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, but also in the second package, … there's been too much focused on the dollar amount and not enough focus on what's in (the legislation).”