By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Transportation Commissioner George Campbell said yesterday's “Roads to the Future,” panel discussion on regional infrastructure in southern New Hampshire reminded him of something President Dwight Eisenhower once said about the highway system he envisioned half a century ago.
“Eisenhower said, 'Get everyone at the table to plan the battle or else everyone will battle the plan.' Seems to me this region has been working really hard at working at this together,” said Campbell. “We're responsible for the backbone of the system, and work with you in planning, but really it's about your communities getting together and making a difference.”
Positivity was the central theme of the discussion, which touched on many familiar topics – how to fund the widening of I-93 north beyond Windham, making an Exit 4A a reality for Derry and Londonderry, how best to develop acreage around the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, and the need for a comprehensive ground transportation system that, ideally, will include a centralized passenger rail system.
Campbell was one of seven panelists invited by the Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce to discuss the region's current and future infrastructure planning and field questions from the more than 100 members of the business community who attended. Also on the panel were Mark Brewer, direct of the Manchester/Boston Regional Airport; Jack Munn, of Southern New Hampshire Planning; Gary Stenhouse, Derry Town Administrator; Sen. Robert Letourneau, R-Derry; Andre Garron, Londonderry Planning Director; and George Sioras, Derry Planning Director.
Campbell's focus throughout the discussion was on the importance of completing work on I-93 within the next 10 years.
“There are almost a million miles of federal highways, and (I-93) is the 28th most congested. It's strangling our economy, hurting our shipping, it's unsafe. We have spent well over 20 years for the permitting process and land acquisition, and we are finally in the construction phase,” said Campbell.
He noted that the only portion of the total $780 million project that is funded are the ongoing improvements from the Massachusetts border to Windham at Exit 3, and recent work completed on ramps at Exit 5.
Campbell said that at the rate the program is currently being funded, there would be no room in the budget to continue to the much-needed widening until 2030.
“And delays are just going to drive those costs up, so we're looking at a number of different options on the table,” Campbell said.
Installing tolls in Salem would be one way to generate the money needed, said Campbell. Under federal guidelines, tolling is allowed on a federal highway if there is an unfunded capital project. He cautioned that with Massachusetts also considering “border tolls,” NHDOT is actively studying how tolls would affect the town of Salem, which has some concerns which it recently raised through its board of selectmen.
“With technology and good planning, we can make the system work, but the burden of proof is on us and we're glad to step up to that challenge,” Campbell said.
Airport Director Mark Brewer spoke about the economic struggles that have affected air travel nationally, challenges that have trickled down to Manchester's transportation hub. At its peak in 2005, there were 65,000 passengers flying through Manchester; currently there are about half that many, Brewer said.
In an attempt to improve the airport's regional service, Brewer said they have been trying to attract carrier Jet Blue, which is currently looking to expand flights to one new city in the New England area.
Another important consideration is improving and expanding ground transportation options, Brewer said.
“A major issue for us is that people are flying into the Manchester/Boston Regional Airport and then the only way to get somewhere else, aside from a taxi, is by private auto, or renting a car. We need to work on a comprehensive ground transportation strategy that includes bus service to and from the Seacoast, to and from Boston, to Nashua – north, south, east and west,” Brewer said.
That was his seque to the need for a passenger rail system, which he said he strongly supports. He also said he has met recently with top Amtrak officials, who for the first time are showing interest in operating a passenger rail service that would extend from Nashua through Concord.
“I saw an estimate from the Nashua Regional Planning Commission that put the cost at about $249 million in capital alone,” Brewer said, adding that operating costs would depend on how much of the capital gets paid for with grants, and the number of daily runs.
“The good news is Amtrak is taking a serious interest in us. They aren't asking whether they they want to operate here, but how they can operate here,” Brewer said.
He said a train depot where the the new airport access road ends could potentially provide transportation for up to 5 percent of the airports daily passenger flow, or about 400 daily customers.
One question Brewer fielded from the audience was the target date for completion of the airport access road, which is said is June 29, 2012 – thanks to federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, which bumped up the timetable on that project.
Derry Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse underscored Campbell's point that, from his town's perspective, waiting another 20 years for expansion of I-93 is not an option – especially because the reality of Exit 4A depends on funding for I-93 expansion.
Creating an exit in Derry is key to the town's economic future, said Stenhouse. It would ease rush hour congestion in the downtown area and deliver traffic to the Route 28 TIF district, which the town is actively developing to attract new commercial business.
Munn also continued the theme of regional cooperation, and said SNHP is working on creating an online data base listing all commercial industrial properties available for development within all participating communities.
“Job creation is what economic development is about, but to get to job creation we have to do strategic planning. Particularly in this region, we can no longer view our neighbors as competitor, but rather as collaborators,” Munn said.