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Whether it’s projects at home or every day on the job, there’s always room for improvement. Maybe it’s changing the way you do something, despite the fact that you’ve always done it that way. Maybe there’s a tool or piece of equipment that would save you valuable time and money. Or maybe you’re just tweaking something that you’re already doing pretty well. That was the idea behind the recent “NHDOT Efficiency Town Hall,” where about 100 NH Department of Transportation employees chosen mostly at random gathered to share ideas and brainstorm on what we can do to make our Department better. The session was similar to previous NHDOT “Budget Town Meetings” dating back to 2008, which produced ideas that have led to improved processes and milllions in savings. The participating employees in October 2014 came from virtually all Bureaus within the NHDOT. All had an equal opportunity to express themselves with both concerns and suggestions. Ten breakout groups spent a good portion of the morning putting forward proposals and prioritizing what ideas might be most important and reasonably possible. Their reports to the reassembled group were varied with some common themes, such as improving internal and external commucations, much-needed technology upgrades, and workforce development and retention. There was tremendous energy and enthusiasm from all involved during the entire exercise. Everyone was engaged, vocal, and committed to making our organization better. Whether it was installing solar panels on DOT facilties, improving electronic file sharing, or closing bridges to allow for quicker replacements, there were no shortage of ideas. Elected New Hampshire policy makers who were invited to the Town Hall had to be impressed by what they saw – state workers participating in an exercise aimed at improving how we serve our customers. In the coming weeks, these ideas will be further reviewed and prioritized. The ideas we use will help make the NHDOT even more efficient. As funding issues challenge our ongoing mission, I have never been more “Proud to be NHDOT,” or confident in the ability of our employees to meet that mission.
New Hampshire’s election season is well underway, and the rhetoric is escalating on all sides with political ads. Ads like this one – “THE LEGISLATURE RAISED OUR GAS TAX. ACROSS NEW HAMPSHIRE, TAXES ARE GOING UP, AND FAMILIES ARE HURTING.WITH GAS PRICES SKYROCKETING.”
Not exactly. Since a 4.2 cent a gallon increase in the State gas tax took effect on July 1, 2014, the price of a gallon of gasoline in New Hampshire has dropped noticeably in New Hampshire. On June 30th the average price of gas in the Granite State was $3.65. One month later, the average price is $3.58. The national average price of gas posted the largest July decline in six years. Drivers in New Hampshire and elsewhere paid about 11 cents more per gallon at this time last year. Gas prices are affected by a number of factors, including supply and demand, world events, natural disasters, production levels, and yes, state and federal taxes, which in New Hampshire make up less than 15% of the total cost to fill your tank. The additional revenue from the 4.2 cent state gas tax increase (the first since 1991) is expected to total $33 million a year. The really good news is that ALL of this additional revenue is being invested right back into New Hampshire’s hurting highway system that we all depend upon every day to get to our jobs, errands, schools, recreation, etc. Here’s where the money is going. More than 200 more miles of paving and road reconstruction work is being made possible across New Hampshire this year. A dozen local bridges in serious need of work are being replaced or rehabilitated sooner. In future years, the additional funds will make possible the completion of the northern segment of the economically vital I-93 rebuilding and widening project. All of this much-needed additional work can be found on a NHDOT web page that provides transparent and location-specific project details. The State and Federal Highway Funds, which depend on state and federal gas taxes, are running on fumes, due to the increased costs of maintaining and improving the nation’s roads and bridges, more fuel efficient vehicles, and a drop in overall miles travelled. Even assuming that New Hampshire’s gas tax increase will increase the price of a gallon of gas (which has yet to happen), a person who drives 12,000 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 30 mile per gallon can expect to pay another $16.80 a year on gasoline. And yes, for the driver that drives three times the miles, they will pay an additional $50 a year – just over $4 a month. Bad roads in New Hampshire are estimated to cost a motorist over $300 a year in car repairs. Which is more painful? Don’t be fooled. Deferring critical maintenance and repairs on our infrastructure is a BUDGET GIMMICK, not a budget savings. The costs of inaction, delays, and “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to infrastructure means we will all be paying much more later. Investing in a highway system that we all depend on every day for vital goods, services, and travel should be a no-brainer for all elected officials and their challengers.
There’s a product out there than can do amazing things when it comes to preventing ice build-up on New Hampshire roadways during the winter. It’s extremely cheap, very environmentally friendly, and can spread itself almost everywhere. It’s called the Sun! Enter the “Brontosaurus”. Not the very large dinosaur that could reach the tops of trees for food, but a piece of rented equipment that can do the same thing. The modern Brontosaurus, essentially a chipper mounted on an excavator, is able to reach foliage that would be difficult, dangerous, and time consuming for the NHDOT to remove. Its benefits include: (1) Environmental - The removal of trees immediately along the roadside makes possible a greater infiltration of sunlight during the winter months. This allows for the roadway to return to bare pavement faster after a storm and reduces the use of salt in sections that have greater sunlight exposure. This saves money and reduces the impact on the environment. During an average winter, the NHDOT spends over 10 million dollars on rock salt; (2) Safety - The Department removes trees along the roadside to improve sight distance as well as sign recognition. In addition, the added clear zone provided allows for greater driver reaction distance for either roadway departures or for recognition of roadside hazards (i.e. animal crossings); (3) Mobility - Best summed up by a comment from a patrol foreman. “This machine can get done in a day what it would take my crew a week.” This efficiency means the need for fewer lane closures and thus less inconvenience to the travelling public; (4) Injury reduction -This operation allows for the mechanical means of removing foliage and trees that are often on hazardous terrain. To do this work by hand would involve needing to haul brush up a slope to a chipper, and then either hauling the chips away or depositing them back on the slope. The Brontosaurus is able to clear brush and trees up to a diameter of about 6 to 8 inches. Larger trees being removed will have stumps that remain temporarily until DOT maintenance crews return and cut the stumps off at ground level. This highly visible work has not been without some misperceptions and consternation. Some motorists who have seen the stumps and complained about their appearance (before the crews return) are not seeing the whole picture. Effective tree trimming makes for a safer driving experience for motorists. Unlike its extinct predecessor, this Brontosaurus is clearly our friend and its work benefits us all.
It was almost nine years ago, in July of 2005, that the first project associated with the rebuilding and widening of Interstate 93 between Salem and Manchester was advertised. It was a new bus terminal for Exit 4 in Derry, part of the effort to encourage more travel by bus during along the 20-mile corridor that was facing construction work for many years. As the construction season of 2014 gets underway, one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation is now approaching 60% complete, with $352 million in construction projects either active or complete. The need to rebuild and widen I-93 in New Hampshire’s southern tier remains as important as ever. The four lane highway built in the early 1960’s to handle 60,000 vehicles a day now regularly tops 100,000 vehicles a day at the Massachusetts state line. The safety and capacity improvements this project brings will ensure mobility and safe travel for decades to come along this vital economic lifeline for New Hampshire. This week I toured the progress at Exit 3 in Windham at the request of U.S. Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster, along with the chairs of the New Hampshire Senate and House Transportation Committees. It’s truly impressive to see the work that has been done to rebuild the interchange and construct massive new northbound and southbound bridges over NH Route 111. This work continues with special attention to keeping traffic flowing and to protect the sensitive enviromental surroundings that include Canobie Lake and Cobbetts Pond. By the end of 2015, all 19 “Red List” bridges along the corridor will have been replaced or rehabilitated and traffic will be flowing on the prioritized sections that include the 6 mile segment from Exit 1 in Salem to Exit 3 in Windham. Still to be addressed are capacity improvements in the northern segment, with construction scheduled to begin in 2014 and completed in 2020. Funding that section ($250 Million) remains a challenge, but I am confident we will find a way to get this done and complete the project. Congresswoman Kuster is well aware of the transportation funding uncertainties with the Highway Trust Fund at the Federal level. “We must make repairing our roads and bridges a top priority,” said Congresswoman Kuster said following the I-93 tour. “Projects like the I-93 expansion not only help protect the safety of Granite State residents, they also provide better transportation options for our state’s workers, spur the economy, and create jobs. I call on House Leadership to work to quickly find a solution to fund the Highway Trust fund, which is so critical to projects like the one I toured today.”
Every session of the New Hampshire Legislature requires numerous visits by NHDOT representatives who are testifying at public hearings on proposed Bills that could affect transportation. Much of this legislation goes before the House Public Works Committee, which specializes in transportation matters. This committee is well versed on all things transportation, but like all of us, it doesn’t hurt to get out of the office once in a while and see things first-hand. That was the idea behind a recent bus tour which took about 20 House members (mostly from Public Works) to places they hear about but rarely see. Sponsored by the New Hampshire Good Roads Association and Concord Coach, the tour featured stops at a NHDOT maintenance facility in Northwood, the Little Bay Bridge widening and rehabilitation project in Dover-Newington, the Sarah Long Bridge in Portsmouth, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The first stop at the Northwood #604 patrol shed just off Route 4 gave the lawmakers an up-close and personal interaction with just one of scores of NHDOT maintenance crews who continue to battle a pretty severe New Hampshire winter. They heard from those on the front lines, and got a good sense of their resourcefulness, their dedication, and their abilities to the job done. The stop at the Long Bridge, New Hampshire’s #1 “Red List” bridge was a real eye-opener for some. “It’s just in terrible shape,” Rep. Virginia Irwin, of Newport, told WMUR TV. “I don’t know that I’d ever drive over it.” In fact the bus carrying the lawmakers was too heavy to drive over the weight-restricted lift bridge, which has a $150 million price tag for replacement. And why did a bus filled with New Hampshire lawmakers need to go to Maine? The answer was to hear directly from top officials at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard about why they see a continued rail link to the Shipyard via the Long Bridge as crucial to the facility’s future. The cited the Shipyard’s vital military role and its economic impact of over $1 Billion a year to the seacoast region. There were a lot of stops and a lot of information for the lawmakers to digest and consider. Some may still question certain projects or proposals. But each completed the transportation tour with a better appreciation and a clearer picture of the many challenges of meeting New Hampshire’s transportation needs.