July 08. 2013 9:28PM

Report on NH roads: Good, some bumps ahead

New Hampshire Union Leader

The condition of New Hampshire’s interstate highways was ranked first in the nation in an annual report by the Reason Foundation. (NHDOT PHOTO)

New Hampshire is a study in contrasts when it comes to road conditions.

Interstate highways in the southern tier of the state are the best in the nation, ranked number one in a 50-state analysis by the Reason Foundation, a nonpartisan, public-policy foundation that publishes Reason magazine.

The foundation’s recently released 20th annual Highway Report found a lot to like in Granite State roadways, but was not so flattering about its bridges.

With zero miles of urban interstate in poor condition, New Hampshire ranks first in that category, based largely on data from the Federal Highway Administration.

But with 30 percent of its bridges in poor or “deficient” condition, the state’s ranking on bridge quality falls to 41st. Only nine states have a larger percentage of bridges classified as deficient.

That doesn’t mean New Hampshire bridges are falling down.

“Residents driving on New Hampshire bridges shouldn’t worry about safety,” said David T. Hartgen, professor emeritus of transportation at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and lead author of the report. “Deficient means they are either structurally or functionally obsolescent. It doesn’t mean they are unsafe.”

The bridge conditions are derived from the National Bridge Inventory, created by a federal law that requires a uniform inspection of all bridges for structural and functional adequacy at least every two years.

“Looking back over time, New Hampshire has actually had quite a bit of success in reducing the percentage of deficient bridges,” Hartgen said. “They were reduced by 14 percentage points in two decades.” When Reason began its analysis 20 years ago, the state reported 45 percent of its bridges in deficient condition.

The ranking on bridges came as no surprise to Bill Boynton, public information officer for the N.H. Department of Transportation.

“The average age of a New Hampshire bridge is 54 years old. Half of all New Hampshire bridges were built before 1976. A large segment of our bridge inventory of 2,143 state bridges is reaching the end of its design life,” he wrote in an email. “Only half of the state bridges were designed to meet modern loads, and yet traffic on these bridges has gone up 33 percent in the last 20 years. Current funding for state bridges is $30 million a year. We should be investing $47 million in these bridges just to maintain them at existing levels.”

Overall ranking of 16th

The report ranks states on 11 different criteria, ranging from quality of urban and rural interstates and bridges, to fatality rates and more arcane calculations such as “maintenance disbursement per mile.”

With all factors taken into consideration, New Hampshire ranked 16th, which in the big picture means the state is getting pretty good road conditions relative to the size of its investment.

New Hampshire does spend a lot on maintenance compared to warm weather states, and was ranked 42nd for spending $51,780 per mile of roadway, meaning only eight states spent more. But the state spent much less than others on capital investment (meaning expansion or new roads) and bridges. The state’s total expenditure per mile puts it in the middle of the pack, at 29.

In addition to the number-one rating for urban interstates, which means I-numbered highways around Concord, Nashua, Manchester and Portsmouth, the state also has a low fatality rate, fifth lowest in the nation. Massachusetts reported the lowest.

New Hampshire ranked 12th in the condition of its non-interstate arterial roadways, which includes major state-numbered highways like routes 101, 4 or 111. The state has improved from 39th to 27th to 18th in the last three reports on overall road conditions.

Rose-colored glasses?

According to state Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chairman of the Public Works and Highway Committee, the report takes a snapshot of a period in time when the state enjoyed several one-time sources of highway funding that will not be available moving forward, including $129 million in federal stimulus funding, all of which went to the interstate system.

Money the state has been receiving from the federal government for transferring ownership of the portion of I-95 that goes through New Hampshire is about to expire, and a $30 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations that was approved for two years in 2009 has expired.

“We made a little progress on bridges and a lot of progress on arterial roads, but I’m concerned that a report like this will distract people from the overall horrific condition of the state roads and bridges,” said Campbell. “There are 4,500 miles of roadway in New Hampshire, and not very much of it is arterial.”

The Reason study did not report on the condition of non-arterial roadways. Campbell said if all 4,500 miles are taken into account, 37 percent of the overall system is in poor condition, and the number is growing.

Campbell led an unsuccessful attempt in the last session of the state Legislature to phase in a fuel-tax increase of 12 cents a gallon over three years for gasoline and six years for diesel. The measure cleared the House but died in the Senate.

State Rep. Pamela Tucker, R-Greenland, was among the vocal opponents of Campbell’s proposal. She said money raised by fuel taxes and motor vehicle registrations is diverted to other state departments, primarily to fund state police.

“Our state currently raises about $270 million a year that should be for roads and bridges,” she said. “But the budget we just approved only commits 67 percent of that money to the Department of Transportation. If the other departments actually went through the budget process and defended what they need and why they need it, we would be better able to use the highway fund.”

The complete annual Highway Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems is available at www.reason.org.