November 27. 2013 7:59PM

I-293: A plan to make it better through Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER — An engineering firm has come up with a series of plans for making Interstate 293 safer and easier to drive as it winds its way along the Merrimack River through Manchester.

The priciest set of alternatives — now in the hands of the state Department of Transportation — would cost an estimated $148 million. The study focuses on the stretch of highway just north of Exit 5 at Granite Street to about one mile north of the Exit 7 interchange at Front Street.

"The purpose ... is to identify if there is a sufficient problem that we should spend significant dollars on," said Martin Kennedy, senior principal at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc, the engineering firm that prepared the report. "This study has determined that there is a substantial enough problem so the state should continue down the process."

Several problems with I-293 and its connections to city streets are recognized in the study.

One of the most well-known to commuters is congestion at the highway's interchange at Amoskeag Circle off Exit 6. Another is the tendency of drivers to weave in and out of traffic in a sharply curved section near exits 6 and 7 in a battle to gain position between the closely spaced interchanges to get on or off the highway.

Widening to three lanes

At the core of the alternative proposals presented is widening I-293 from two to three lanes in each direction from Exit 5 to the area of Exit 7. That part of the project could cost $8 million to $20 million.

The study also suggests various schemes for rebuilding interchanges at exits 6 and Exit 7. Relocation of Exit 7 a bit to the north is one possible solution that is to receive further study.

Planners are also looking at ways the highway can be configured to help two economic development projects in an industrial area in Goffstown and the Hackett Hill section of Manchester.

Five alternatives are presented for rebuilding Exit 6. A variety of interchange configurations are suggested, at a price tag estimated to range from $34 million to $60 million.

Relocating Exit 7 could cost as much as $46 million."It's a question of trade-offs," said Bill Cass, director of project development for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. "We wouldn't want to shortchange anything, but we are going to spend a lot of resources so we want it to have sufficient design life and meet transportation needs."

Toll increases on horizon?

The affected parts of I-293 are part of the state turnpike system. Increases in turnpike tolls — even extending the tolls to the highway as it cuts through Manchester — may need to be considered, Cass said.

"Anything going forward with (exits) 6 and 7 would require some level of toll increase to support them," Cass said.

The project now enters another study phase, in which the alternatives are compared to each other and against the impact on surrounding city areas. Building along the Merrimack River involves environmental issues, while widening the road could also disturb regulated historic remnants of Manchester's past.

While the impact construction work would have on the surrounding area is studied, the state DOT will prepare a report for the Federal Highway Administration — required before an interstate highway is altered.

"This next phase is probably in a two-year time frame," Kennedy said. "At the end of that, if the solutions make sense, the project would go to a design phase that would take another couple of years."

Jan. 7 public hearing

A public hearing on the status of the project is planned for Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. at Manchester City Hall.

The question of how to improve transportation without adding to the burden of taxes and fees on the public has been controversial in New Hampshire over the past year. Those involved concede that much of the coming discussion is apt to be over what the state can afford compared to what the experts think is needed.

"Maybe at the end of the day, what we come up with is the best of both worlds," Cass said. "We just don't know at this point."