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Shaheen: Federal infrastructure aid could arrive in region this year

Federal funds designated last year for a wide range of infrastructure work, from road and bridge repairs to broadband expansion, should begin arriving in New Hampshire communities soon, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said Tuesday.

Shaheen, who helped negotiate the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, noted in an interview with The Sentinel that some of the aid has already started trickling into the state.

That includes $219 million for highway upgrades — a large bump from the Granite State’s allocation last year, due to billions of dollars in new spending from the infrastructure law. The state is also in line to get funding for drinking-water and wastewater improvements, as well as broadband expansion, Shaheen’s office announced previously.

“Those are some of the areas that I think are really going to be important for New Hampshire,” she said Tuesday.

Shaheen, a Democrat, touted the $110 billion designated in the five-year spending package for transportation-related upgrades across the country, namely to roads and bridges.

Those funds will go toward repairs to the state’s red-listed bridges, which must be inspected regularly due to structural deterioration, she said, with New Hampshire slated to receive $225 million for that work alone. Nearly 40 of those bridges are in Cheshire County, according to the latest N.H. Department of Transportation data.

“That’s one area where we know we need help,” Shaheen said.

With the influx of aid, state transportation officials will now have the funding to proceed with repairs to the Vilas Bridge in Walpole, which has been closed since failing a safety inspection in 2009, according to J.B. Mack, principal planner with the Southwest Region Planning Commission.

Mack, whose organization advises area communities, said state officials had planned to take out bonds to finance many transportation-related initiatives, such as a $61 million project to replace two aging bridges that link Hinsdale and Brattleboro. But that calculus changed due to the new infrastructure package, he said, because that aid can replace those bonds or refund them before their steep interest rates kick in.

“We’re going to be able to tackle needs that we’ve identified faster than we’ve been able to in the past,” he said.

The federal assistance will also help upgrade New Hampshire’s water infrastructure, according to Shaheen, who visited health-care facilities in Claremont and Lebanon on Tuesday.

That will support critical drinking-water and wastewater projects, she said, noting that $72 million from the infrastructure package has already been designated for that work in the state. Shaheen said PFAS contamination is among several issues that need attention so that Granite Staters have access to clean drinking water.

“I was in Newport this summer, and one of the things that I heard from the town officials there … was just what a challenge it is because they’ve got pipes in the community that are over 100 years old that need to be replaced,” she said.

The infrastructure package, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November, also includes funding to help bring high-speed Internet to rural communities.

With more people working from home during the pandemic, as well as students attending class remotely, Shaheen said that investment will be particularly impactful for small towns in the region. The federal aid will go toward both installing broadband infrastructure and lowering costs for Internet users.

Those initiatives will build on efforts that many local communities have already taken to increase high-speed Internet access, according to Henry Underwood, a planner with the Southwest Region Planning Commission.

Underwood said much of the funding is specifically targeted at places without any broadband service. That included 11.7 percent of all households in Cheshire County, as of December 2020, data from the Federal Communications Commission show.

It remains unclear when the broadband aid will be available to kick off those expansion efforts, Underwood said Tuesday, adding that similar funds from pandemic-relief legislation enacted last year haven’t even been fully spent.

“There’s still a lot of meat on the bone,” he said. “There’s still more details to come forward.”

Shaheen, who met with broadband advocates from the Monadnock Region last summer, said she expects people will start seeing the infrastructure investments in their communities later this year.

“We’re going to start right away,” she said.

The state’s senior senator, now in her third term, also said Tuesday she’s open to spinning off provisions of a stalled $2.2 trillion spending package as their own individual bills if that makes it easier for them to pass. Among her priorities in the so-called Build Back Better bill, which hasn’t passed the Senate, Shaheen identified extra support for child care and early-childhood education as well as greater paid-leave opportunities for workers.

“I think there’s a lot in that bill that will really help American families,” she said. “We can’t stop. We’ve got to keep working on it. … I think however we can get it done is important.”