U.S. DOT rep. to visit aging Memorial Bridge

May 13, 2010

PORTSMOUTH - A high-ranking U.S. Department of Transportation representative will join transportation leaders at Memorial Bridge on Friday for a meeting officials hope will boost New Hampshire's chances of obtaining federal stimulus money to help replace the deteriorating structure.

Efforts to secure funding for the bridge cleared one hurdle on Wednesday when members of the New Hampshire Senate voted to approve an amendment to the Department of Transportation's ten-year-plan that seeks to allow the DOT to seek up to $45 million in additional bonds to replace Memorial Bridge.

News of the Senate approval of the bonds comes as stakeholders prepare for a visit from an official in charge of approving federal grants that will be crucial in supplementing state moneys for a bridge project.

Acting Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Joel Szabat will tour the bridge and talk with leaders about how they might best craft an application that state officials say will seek an estimated $20 million in federal funding through a second round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants.

The meeting was spearheaded by U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine and U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and follows ongoing discussions between elected officials and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.

Representatives for Sen. Collins said Szabat is expected to meet with officials at the bridge and outline the TIGER grant process to help the states and local partners produce the strongest grant application possible.

Shaheen called Memorial Bridge "critical" to the economy and quality of life in many Seacoast communities.

"I am hopeful that Friday's meeting will be an opportunity for New Hampshire stakeholders to make the second round TIGER grant application as competitive as possible, and I will continue to closely follow this issue in the months ahead," Shaheen said.

NH Department of Transportation Project Manager Bob Landry said New Hampshire continues to take a lead role in attempting to find the funding necessary to replace Memorial Bridge, which has been deteriorating for years.

New Hampshire and Maine transportation leaders and stakeholders are continuing with a connections study that seeks to find the most feasible options for addressing problems with the aging Memorial Bridge and the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge.

The states combined to submit a $70 million request to rehabilitate Memorial Bridge in an initial round of TIGER grants, but learned in February that their project had not been among those selected for $1.5 billion in available funding.

Since then Maine transportation leaders have informed New Hampshire officials that they do not immediately have the funding to support addressing problems with Memorial Bridge in time for the states to apply for a second round of TIGER grants that offers $600 million in available funds.

Landry said discussions with federal DOT officials indicated the Maine-New Hampshire joint application narrowly missed out on being approved for the first round on TIGER funding and he expressed hope that a meeting with Szabat might assist them in developing a proposal that has a better chance at being approved for funding.

The pre-application deadline for the second round of TIGER grant funding comes on July 16 with the final proposal due by Aug. 23.

The lack of funding from Maine has New Hampshire officials working hard to determine how they might fund what is looking more and more like a project to replace rather than rehabilitate the 86-year-old Memorial Bridge.

Landry said recent structural inspections of the bridge show a rehab project would require the bridge to essentially be moved in order to conduct necessary repairs - an option he noted would most likely be cost prohibitive.

The project manager said current goals have New Hampshire transportation officials looking to secure the estimated $100 million necessary to replace the bridge, though Landry confirmed the two states have yet to officially reach consensus on whether a new bridge would simply be a pedestrian bridge or a structure accommodating vehicles.

Landry said his department has $35 million in funding allocated for the bridge, but he noted that State Senator Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth) recently proposed an amendment to the DOT's ten year plan that would allow an additional $45 million in funding for the bridge through a Garvee Bond.

Fuller Clark said the amendment was approved by a nearly unanimous voice vote by the full Senate on Wednesday and will need to be passed by the House.

Fuller Clark and Senator Robert Letourneau - the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee - expressed confidence on Wednesday that they have the support in the House necessary for the $45 million in bonds to be passed.

Officials hope the balance of the cost of a bridge replacement would come in the way of $20 million in TIGER funding.

Landry said approval of the Garvee Bond by the legislature must come before New Hampshire legislators break for the summer as the deadline for the TIGER grant pre-application is due by mid-July.

Officials say New Hampshire will not bid out a possible Memorial Bridge project until they reach an agreement with Maine officials that will see New Hampshire being compensated for allocating funds for a bridge whose costs are the responsibility of both states.

"We need an agreement with Maine to do any work on the Maine side," Landry said.

Landry said New Hampshire would essentially be fronting the money for Maine with that state having to agree to come up with a formal agreement for how it might be repaid.

"It could be as simple as when we do the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, they will front some of our costs," Landry said.

Memorial Bridge is currently amid a process that has the aging structure being inspected twice a year.

The bridge's weight limits have been dropped repeatedly in recent time as a result of its deterioration and has been given a one- to three-year life span if it is not repaired.

"It's getting to be in bad shape structurally. I think we are closer to the one year than we are to the three years," Landry said of the bridge's life span.

Portsmouth City Councilor Ken Smith said the upkeep of Sarah Mildred Long and Memorial Bridge should be paramount as they represent vital corridors between Kittery and Portsmouth.

Smith noted the bridges provide access to Portsmouth for those traveling up Route 1 and is crucial in getting workers to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

"It's vital to businesses at either end. If something happens to those bridges that would put our working port in jeopardy," Smith said.

By:  Geoff Cunningham, Jr.
Source: Foster's Daily Democrat