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July 22. 2013 6:35PM

ATVs granted highway access in time to save North Country festival this weekend

Off-road vehicles will make their first-ever appearance on state highways this week, after Gov. Maggie Hassan announced ATVs will be allowed on portions of Routes 2 and 16 in the Gorham area.

Monday's announcement coincides with this weekend's Jericho ATV Festival. For years, town officials have opened local roads to ATV use, especially for an event such as the Jericho festival.

Advocates say the state highway access will provide ATV riders with routes to fueling stations, hotels, motels and restaurants in Coos County. The highways also link distinct ATV trails.

"Allowing off-road vehicles to travel on state highways will help make New Hampshire's unparalleled ATV-riding experiences an even greater success," Hassan said in prepared remarks.

The announcement applies to low-speed portions of Routes 2 and 16 in Gorham, as well as Bridge Street in Colebrook and Main Street in Stewartstown.

Christopher Gamache, chief of the state Bureau of Trails, said legislation was enacted about a year ago to allow permits for ATV use on state highways. He said both the state Department of Transportation and State Police must sign off on the permits; the DOT does not want ATVs on any stretch of highway where the speed limit exceeds 40 mph.

Gamache said the off-road vehicles are not allowed to operate on the highways at night. And they are only allowed on highways when ATV trails are open. Some trails in the North Country are closed during hunting season; others are open into December.

Operators must have a New Hampshire driver's license, though children over the age of 12 are allowed to operate on the highway if they have a safety training certificate and are under the supervision of an adult.

Off-road vehicles will have to ride in the travel lane, with traffic, and operate at posted highway speeds, Gamache said.

"Riding on the highway is going to be a new experience for OHRV users, and riders and motorists need to be aware of one another," Gamache said. He said it will be important for the ATV users to pay attention to signs.

Gamache said additional portions of state highways are expected to open soon in Errol, Stratford, Lancaster and Groveton.

Altogether, about 17 1/2 miles of highways will be open to off-road vehicle use, complementing between 800 and 1,000 miles of ATV trails, he said.

Crews from the Bureau of Trails will install temporary signs along US Route 2 and state Route 16 in Gorham by Thursday. The two-day Jericho festival opens Friday. The DOT is expected to install permanent signs next month.

The Gorham sections of highway will make riding available from Jericho Mountain State Park and the Ride the Wilds' Coos Loop directly to motels and restaurants in Gorham and allow local residents direct trail access from certain town roads.

"This will enable riders to come off the trails and into these communities, where they can fill up with gas, get something to eat or spend the night," Gamache said.

The Trails Bureau website — nhtrails.org — is expected to be updated with the road routes early next week.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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