Officials Want New 1A Bridge

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By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Tuesday, January 31, 2006

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

HAMPTON -- Local officials say they would rather see a new four-lane bridge without a lift than see the state pour money into rehabbing the existing Route 1A Hampton Harbor Bridge.

That was the message they sent to members of the state Department of Transportation who came before the Hampton Beach Commission last Thursday night to give them an update on its plans to repair the bridge in two years.

The bridge, officially called the Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge, is two lanes with a lift and is a traffic nightmare, especially during summer months.

The DOT's Mark Whitemore said while the state would like to construct a new bridge that could handle the traffic in the area, neither the state nor the federal government has the $30 million needed to do the job.

And the state can't wait any longer because the bridge, which was first constructed in 1949, desperately needs to be repaired.

"The bottom line is the bridge needs to be rehabilitated and should be done in the near future," Whitemore said.

The bridge is on the state's red list, which means it's structurally deficient.

Whitemore said the state is considering three options to repair the bridge, all of which got a lukewarm response from local officials.

The first option, which would cost between $6.3 million and $7 million, would shut down the bridge for six months. Whitemore said the bridge would close between April and June, reopen for July and August and then shut down again between September and November.

The second option, which would cost $7 million to $7.7 million, would keep the bridge open, but only one lane at a time. One lane would be open between April and June, both lanes would be open July and August, and then the other lane would close between September and November.

Local officials nixed both ideas talking about the economic impact the closure would have on local businesses as well as the state parks.

"It will cripple the economy," said Hampton Beach Commission Chairman Fred Rice. "The Hampton Beach State Park is the biggest generator in revenue for the state. It basically supports all the other state parks."

The third option, which would cost between $9.8 million and $10 million, would construct a temporary two-lane bridge on the opposite side of the state park. The temporary bridge, with a shelf life of two years, would be used while repairs are made to the Underwood Bridge.

Hampton Beach Commission members said they would rather see the state construct a temporary bridge while they wait for more funding to construct a new bridge.

"I think it's a pity that it's still going to be a drawbridge," said Hampton Beach Commission member Tom Higgins. "I think any recommendation considered should be a four-lane bridge. The traffic is a nightmare now and it's going to be a nightmare in the future.

"If we have the engineering capability to put a temporary bridge that doesn't have to open, why don't we have the engineering capability to put in a rehab bridge that doesn't open?"

Hampton Beach Village Precinct Chairman John Kane agreed.

"I think it would be a shame to throw good money after bad and end up with the same bridge," he said.

Hampton Beach Commission member Skip Windemiller said if the state is willing to pay $6 million to $10 million to rehab the bridge, then there must be a solution to get a new bridge.

He noted a new four-lane bridge would pay for itself with traffic improvements and the increase of tourists to the state.

Another commissioner suggested residents would be in favor of putting a toll on a new bridge to pay for it, similar to what was done when the bridge was first constructed in 1949.

Whitemore said while the state has looked at a new bridge, the money isn't there.

Rice said the commission intends to be proactive in working with the state to get a new bridge even if it means lobbying federal and state officials to make it a reality.

"We don't think rehabbing the existing bridge will be any benefit," Rice said. "The only thing it will do is keep traffic and delay problems for another 20 years instead of a couple. Rehabbing the bridge doesn't benefit Hampton Beach."

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