The expansion of Interstate 93 from Salem to Manchester will remain at three lanes for now, as the New Hampshire Department of Transportation deals with a demand to lower road salt affecting four watersheds.
While a planned fourth lane is being constructed and is part of the footprint, the state will not be able to pave over it until the salt issue is resolved.
At a May 20 breakfast forum sponsored by two local Chambers of Commerce, as reported in last week’s edition, Project Manager Wendy Johnson compared the issue to frosting a cake. The infrastructure will be there, but cannot be paved over until the salt is reduced.
The state was taken to court by the Conservation Law Foundation in 2006, and in a ruling in 2007, agreed to limit the amount of salt in the runoff. But the watersheds lining this portion of the interstate highway still test too high on chloride, according to officials.
The watersheds are Policy/Porcupine Brook, Dinsmore Brook, and the north tributary to Canobie Lake in Salem and Windham; and the Beaver Brook watershed in Derry, Londonderry, Chester and Auburn.
The amount of salt and its effect on the watersheds was an issue as far back as 2005, according to the project’s Web site. Water quality monitoring was done from 2002 to 2005, conducted jointly by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES), DOT and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and documented violations of the water quality standards for chloride in the four watersheds.
A TMDL (total maximum daily load) study was done, conducted by DES and funded by DOT.
The term “total maximum daily load,” or TMDL, refers to the calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and attain or maintain water quality standards for its designated use. The purpose of the chloride TMDL is to estimate chloride loads from all sources that led to the water quality violations, determine the capacity of the water bodies to assimilate chloride without violating the standards, and develop an implementation plan to reduce chloride loads in order to meet the water quality standards.
Tom Irwin, vice-president and New Hampshire director of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), said in a phone interview May 25, “Some water bodies are traversed or near the places where I-93 will expand.” Irwin said in light of EPA and DES regulations, there is a concern about excess road salt pollution, specifically chlorides.
“It was made clear by both entities with respect to widening I-93 that until the problem is solved, the DOT cannot proceed with its plan to operate four lanes,” Irwin said.
Irwin allowed that New England winters make some kind of ice-melting agent inevitable. But there are ways to deal with it, he added. DOT has taken some steps by putting new trucks on the road, which use a brine solution instead of rock salt. The amount of chloride used is less, Irwin said.
Irwin said DOT has also improved its weather forecasting and planning, so it does not take action against lighter snow days.
Irwin said a concerted effort is under way to use less salt across the state, on state roads, municipal roads and in large parking lots. It’s a state, municipal and commercial initiative, he said.
The real solution, for Irwin and other members of the CLF, is to see fewer cars in addition to less salt. “We have often said that a simple widening of the road is not the complete solution,” Irwin said. “We need to take a more wholistic approach, not just encourage more traffic.”
For him that means investing in transit, and especially rail. “That will give residents and commuters more choice, and lead to more economically vital communities,” he said.
In Irwin’s view, a population center built solely around cars will encourage more traffic, encourage continual expansion of roadways, and encourage more drivers, more cars and more sprawl.
“If you locate rail in the right place, it will play a powerful role in mixed-use development,” he said.
On May 14 the New Hampshire Senate voted 13-11 against accessing $4 million in Federal funding to pay for the project development phase of the proposed Capital Corridor from Concord to Boston.
Irwin agreed that rail is expensive, but said, “Done right, it can provide a tool for meaningful economic development. The benefits outweigh the cost.”
While the Boston Express bus line takes cars off the road and gets commuters into the city, it is not the complete solution, according to Irwin. “Unfortunately, buses get stuck in the same traffic as cars,” he said.
The I-93 project’s cost has doubled since 2002, from $425 million to more than $800 million. But on Thursday, May 25, Gov. Maggie Hassan and DOT officials formally accepted $200 million from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), a loan that will help complete the expansion of I-93, as well as fix 23 Red List bridges across the state and pave nearly 1,100 additional miles of State roads.
During the first nine years of the TIFIA loan, the DOT will pay interest only.