Rally Support To Get Bridge Fixed Right

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An Editorial

Hampton Union, Tuesday, February 7, 2006

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Debate over the future of the Route 1A Hampton Harbor Bridge should sound an alarm on many levels.

The first being the overdue need to repair, rebuild or replace the Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge that is a vital link to Hampton Beach. But beyond the need to make sure this red-listed bridge remains safe is the bigger picture of the need for state officials to get on the same page with local officials concerning Hampton Beach's future.

Hampton Beach Commission members are pressing the state to build a new four-lane bridge that would not need a drawbridge. This solution would minimize gridlock, something that should be a major priority when working to expand a tourist attraction that already easily draws 100,000 people a day during the summer.

But state officials have thrown up their collective arms, saying neither New Hampshire nor the federal government has the $30 million to build a span that would adequately meet the demands of a future Hampton Beach. Instead of doing the job right, the state wants to spend between $6 million to $10 million on one of three options, any of which in the end will be nothing more than a small Band-Aid on a wound that will only grow wider.

The state endorsed, even pushed, the town to recreate Hampton Beach into a year-round attraction that would further feed New Hampshire's tourism economy, which at $8.6 billion is the Granite State's second largest industry.

The state needs to have a cohesive plan that would assist the town in developing the appropriate road infrastructure to assure Hampton Beach is able to effectively become a larger tourism engine. It needs leadership on this particular issue, and it needs it immediately.

The state Department of Transportation's Mark Whitemore said the state can't wait any longer because the 1949 bridge desperately needs to be repaired.

While the state and nation's lack of highway funds is sadly very real, it is not as if New Hampshire's transportation planners don't have numerous examples of how antiquated infrastructure always catch up with the state in the end. Consider the woefully outdated Route 101 before its expansion; or the cramped, overcapacity Little Bay Bridges and Spaulding Turnpike that can turn a trip to the mountains into a tourist's nightmare.

Consider what an expanded Route 101 has meant for the state's southern tier in connecting its largest cities to the Seacoast, and vice versa. Also, consider significant federal funds are coming to the state to expand the Little Bay Bridges from four to eight lanes, a project estimated at $120 million, but one that will have a similar effect as the Route 101 expansion. Some $4.2 million in federal funds was already earmarked by Congress last fall toward the project of updating the Underwood Memorial Bridge.

And the Hampton Beach Commission suggests the possibility of putting a toll on the bridge to help defray its costs, something that was done when the span first opened in 1949.

Unfortunately, it appears the Hampton Beach Commission may be the voice in the wilderness in persuading the state DOT not to be penny-wise and pound foolish. But commissioners should look at how officials succeeded in getting the funding for the Route 101 expansion and how officials are achieving funds for the Little Bay Bridges expansion.

Beach commissioners should rally local businesses leaders, especially those who believe in the vision of a new Hampton Beach. They should rally local state representatives, senators and the governor. And they should rally our congressional delegations. It won't be easy, but as we've seen with Route 101 and the Little Bay Bridges, it is the only way to get the job done right.

[--The Hampton Union]

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