When NH Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan talks about the $1.5 billion in federal infrastructure funding coming into the state over the next five years, there’s one point she likes to make right away.
“The important thing people need to know is, this is not all new money,” she says.
With all the hoopla surrounding the passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the state was expecting $915 million in federal transportation funds over the same five years even if Congress did nothing but reauthorize existing highway legislation, which it has done consistently.
The Biden bill increases existing federal funding for the state’s core highway programs by $225 million, to $1.14 billion.
Sheehan expects that level of funding to be slightly increased or at least kept stable in ensuing five-year periods. Add to that a one-time allocation of $225 million for bridges, $125 million for public transportation (a 30% increase), $45 million for airports, and NH has opportunities to make significant improvements.
The Granite State’s share of the bill also includes $100 million to expand broadband coverage to underserved parts of the state; $420 million for water quality improvements; $5.6 million to protect against wildfires; and $12.4 million to protect against cyberattacks.
“It happens to be a 10-year plan year for us,” says Sheehan of the state’s long-term infrastructure plan, “so it’s really perfect timing. We’ve been conducting public hearings across the state and those have been concluded, so we know what projects are important to people and we now have certainty around federal funding.”
The infrastructure bill had already passed the U.S. Senate and was expected to eventually pass the House while the state’s 10-year plan was being drafted, so Sheehan says transportation planners built the expectation of the additional funding into the plan presented to the Governor and Council.
It’s All in the Plan
There will be no new list of projects made possible by the infrastructure bill. Anything related to transportation is going to be rolled into the new 10-year plan.
“Everyone has asked to see the list,” says Sheehan. “There is no separate list. When we develop a 10-year plan, we have to make certain assumptions about future federal revenues, and the current plan we are working under for 2021 to 2030 has been updated to reflect the IIJA (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act).
“With this kind of increase, we are not talking about adding a significant number of projects to the plan,” Shaheen adds.
“It’s more like moving things up and doing them sooner, or taking a project where the scope was constrained because of the federal dollars anticipated at that time, and now we have a bit more latitude.”
Investment in the state’s 200-plus red-listed bridges has in the past taken up a significant portion of the overall transportation funding, but Sheehan is hopeful that the $225 million in new federal money earmarked specifically for bridges will free up core transportation funds for other purposes.
“It’s great that we now have dedicated bridge money, so instead of using flexible funding for bridge work, we can take that money and use it for more benefits to communities,” she says.
Projects likely to benefit from that process include intersection improvements, safety improvements and more attention to walkways, bike paths and rural roads not eligible for federal funding.
“Sometimes those projects don’t rise to the top in terms of priority because we are trying to maintain existing infrastructure,” Sheehan says, “so having dedicated bridge money makes a big difference.”
Public Wants More Options
The DOT and Executive Council have been holding public hearings and taking input online for the past year as part of the 10-year planning process, giving state officials some insight into what improvements NH residents would like to see in their transportation network.
At public hearings held in 21 communities across the state, 456 comments were received, while 766 people responded to surveys online. The public input processes wrapped up on Nov. 3 with a virtual hearing via Zoom.
The combined 1,222 comments received in-person and online may not reflect the consensus of the state’s entire population, but they at least reflect the preferences of people who cared enough to be involved in the process.
What comes through loud and clear in those comments is that NH is too wedded to automobile transportation and needs alternative travel options.
The DOT asked the public to rank five investment options for infrastructure funding: expand travel options, improve safety, maintain the system, reduce congestion or enhance system resiliency. Expanding travel options, which includes bicycle access, pedestrian walkways, public transit, rail and electric vehicle charging, “was consistently ranked at the top of the five categories,” according to the DOT summary of public input presented to the Executive Council.
The Survey Says …
Among members of the public who took the time to attend one of the 21 public hearings, “expand travel options” was cited as the most important consideration at twice the rate of “improve safety.” Within the 766 online surveys, “improve safety” was a close second, followed by “maintaining the system.”
The IIJA provides $17 million to NH for electric vehicle charging stations, which is a new category of federal highway funding that could become permanent. The $125 million for public transportation and rail investments will also likely be used to address the interest in mass transit options.
Improvements in bike paths and pedestrian walkways would most likely come from discretionary grants administered by the federal DOT Transportation Alternatives Program, the nation’s top source of funding for trails and active transportation.
In the 2021 round of grants, NH received $10.7 million in federal funds, which required a 20% match by the state, for a total of $13.4 million available for projects over the next four years. The maximum grant per project is $1.25 million, and 34 applications requesting $25 million were received from cities and towns across the state.
The top-rated application, according to the DOT scoring sheet, came from Claremont, which is proposing to connect pedestrian and bicycle access from a rail trail to the Marion Phillips Apartments, Stevens High School and sports facilities at Monadnock Park.
Nashua ranked second with a proposal to connect the Nashua Riverwalk with the Nashua Heritage Rail Trail through improvements to an existing trail and construction of a new 10-foot-wide paved multi-use path.
Big Economic Impacts
Some of the major projects in the 10-year plan that will benefit from the additional funding include renumbering exit signs along the state’s major highways to bring them into compliance with Federal Highway Administration standards; a feasibility study for construction of an Exit 10 and an easterly connection along the Spaulding Turnpike in Rochester; I-95 sound walls in the Portsmouth area; and Vilas Bridge rehabilitation over the Connecticut River in Walpole.
The financial information service company IHS Markit analyzed the effect of the infrastructure bill on NH and concluded that the 47% increase in federal funding (when all categories are included) over the five-year period will have a significant positive effect on the state’s economy, increasing annual GDP by $277 million.
Sheehan points to the major infrastructure projects of recent years and the demonstrated effect they had on local and state economies, including the widening of Route 93, the Spaulding Turnpike expansion, two new bridges connecting Portsmouth to Kittery, the rehabilitation of the Route 95 bridge and all-electronic, drive-through tolling at various locations throughout the state.
“Think about the impact those projects have had on the state’s economy as a whole,” says Sheehan, “with all the land use and economic development that’s been generated around those corridors.”
The IHS Markit analysis sums it up this way: “The historic investment levels of the IIJA provide a unique opportunity to improve and transform the major New Hampshire highway and transit systems that citizens rely on every day.”
Labor and Supply Issues
The DOT is already having trouble keeping the workforce and acquiring the materials needed to complete current maintenance and construction projects. With a much broader mandate pending now that the additional federal money is on the way, the state will have to work closely with the many contractors who will do most of the work. The goal is to get the 10-year plan through the legislative process and signed into law by the end of June, so that work can begin shortly thereafter.
“We really want to maximize this opportunity and stretch the value of these additional dollars,” says Sheehan, “so we are concerned—with the workforce shortage as well as the rise in gas prices and supply chain issues—that our buying power is being eroded. We’re anxious to work with industry to recruit and retain the talent that is necessary. We’re going to have to partner with the private sector to talk about all the opportunities and work with high-school and college-age students to emphasize those opportunities.”