Londonderry and Derry officials urged the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to make good on its agreement to build Exit 4A as part of the completion of Interstate 93 improvements during a meeting with the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation last week.
DOT representatives at the Londonderry meeting cited budget constraints and the need to update an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the project as reasons they are pushing construction of Exit 4A out past 2022.
“That doesn’t work. It’s a nonstarter,” Londonderry Town Council Chairman John Farrell said. “Woodmont Commons is a 600-acre, $1 billion project. This is the single largest economic development project in the history of the State, and Exit 4A is integral. This project is designed to bring young people back to the State and keep them here, and bring a level of technology and jobs. We know how to drive economic development within the southern tier – we are not in the road building business.”
Former State Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, who dedicated himself to supporting infrastructure improvements along I-93, reminded the DOT of legislation he co-sponsored and helped move through the legislature that funded the construction of Exit 4A.
Rausch said he had a verbal agreement with former DOT Commissioner Christopher Clement that the project would be completed as part of the I-93 widening.
“I was informed the DOT needed $250 million to complete from Exit 3 to the Manchester split, and that included 4A,” he said during the Thursday, Oct. 8 meeting. “Exit 4A construction was not in the 10-year plan because it was verbally agreed upon. I didn’t pull $250 million out of the air, the number came to me from the DOT.”
Rausch said his bill, which increased the gas tax at 4.2 cents, has generated the $50 million the State needs to complete Exit 4A construction in conjunction with I-93 improvements.
“We worked our tails off to get the money to complete these projects, and now you have heard from Londonderry about the Woodmont Commons project we need to keep this state viable, to keep our kids here and promote economic development,” Rausch said. “You need to put Exit 4A where it’s supposed to be and build it concurrent with the widening, as was verbally agreed upon.”
After years of stalled progress, Londonderry and Derry’s Town Councils voted last year to turn over project management for Exit 4A to the DOT.
Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith told the Londonderry Times in September of 2014 that the Town Council agreed to turn over the project to the DOT so the agency could include the project as part of its 10-year highway transportation plan.
Additionally, Smith said he had been informed the DOT needed to be the project manager in order to leverage federal funds for the proposed construction.
Key aspects of the 4A project were detailed in a letter the Town of Londonderry sent to DOT, handing over the reins:
• Construction of a new diamond interchange, which would only receive traffic from and direct traffic to the east side of Interstate 93, located approximately one mile north of Exit 4.
• Construction of approximately one mile of new connector road that would travel across undeveloped land to Folsom Road near its intersection with North High Street in Derry.
• Reconstruction and improvements to approximately 1.6 miles of existing road, including sections of North High Street, Folsom Road, and Tsienneto Road, as well as sections of Franklin Street Extension, New Hampshire Route 28, Pinkerton Street, New Hampshire Route 28 Bypass, and New Hampshire Route 102, all in Derry. The improvements include adding turning lanes, through traffic lanes, and traffic signals.
The letter further noted Londonderry’s contribution of $1.75 million for project-related expenses, including the now outdated EIS.
The Town committed to working with Derry and the DOT to facilitate the design, right of way procurement and construction of Exit 4A, as well as to allocate an additional $3.25 million for all phases of work, and to support the DOT in completing the project.
The Town of Derry made a similar commitment, with both towns not to exceed $5 million for Exit 4A construction.
“In the letter we sent to the Commissioner, with the completion of the final EIS, it was very clear we were turning this over to them,” Smith said at meeting.
After sending the letter of commitment, Smith said he met with DOT officials to discuss drafting a Memorandum of Understanding outlining both Londonderry’s and Derry’s responsibilities to the project.
“We sent comments back in February, then heard nothing for five months,” he said.
Early last week, Smith told the Commission the Town learned the project wasn’t considered as part of the $250 million funding for the completion of I-93 improvements, and that from the project standpoint, the primary sponsors need to bring to conclusion the Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS), at which time the DOT can start the final right of way for the project.
“We wasted a year thinking the DOT was handling the FEIS side of the project. Now we’re hearing back it’s on the towns. You can understand why there’s a lot of frustration on the part of both towns,” he said, noting that completing the interchange while widening I-93 would make most sense.
“At this point, where we are with I-93, we made the decision to push ahead with work, and Exit 4A may be pushed and done directly following I-93 construction,” said Acting Commissioner William Cass, who stepped into Clement’s role when he resigned as head of the DOT earlier this year.
Considering the importance of the Exit 4A project, Rausch told the DOT he hopes to see work to complete the FEIS expedited, noting “there should be no discussion about funding not being there.”
“I hope the DOT will adhere to what Clement was trying to do and I hope the Executive Council will work to bring this project to fruition. I have always been nothing but supportive of this Department, and I hope you can perform the way I always have expected you to,” he said.
“This is the largest project in the history of the State,” Farrell said of Woodmont Commons. “Clement understood that and got on board. We know what we heard, someone took charge, and now they’re trying to pass it back to us.”
“We are not standing in the way, we’re doing everything we can to take over something that has languished in the Towns’ hands for the last eight years. We got bogged down in the spring with the budget crisis,” Cass said. “Even the budget we had was a short-term look. Clement, who made these commitments, left in December. We’re working with the Town and consultant, trying to pull all this together. We feel like we’re being held under the gun for a project the Towns have been delaying for eight years.”
It’s possible an expedited FEIS could be completed in the next 18 to 24 months, according to Cass, who, after the meeting, said it’s also possible the DOT will move the proposed Exit 4A project up in the 10-year plan so that it’s completed with the larger I-93 widening.
“They just need to expedite this project, it’s not a matter of funding,” Rausch said.
Derry Town Council Chairman Tom Cardon, noting he has long been an opponent of the proposed Exit 4A construction, implored the DOT to appoint stronger leadership to manage the project.
“You have 10 parties working on this project, and no one is in charge,” he said. “I’m pleading with you guys, please put one person in charge to deal with all the players and schedule all the work.”
Cardon noted that while he has seen estimates that Exit 4A construction will cost $50 million, he thinks the project will cost closer to $75 million.