Portsmouth Bridge Closure an Important Reminder of Importance of Maintenance

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Several days after it became stuck in the open position, the Department of Transportation made the decision to permanently close the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge in Portsmouth. The 76-year-old span, long at the top of the state’s “red list” of deficient bridges, is a very visible reminder of the importance of continual maintenance of our state’s infrastructure.

The closure of the Long Bridge isn’t a surprise, though it came a bit earlier than planned. Its replacement is under construction and the bridge was scheduled to close in November. With the cost of repairs estimated at $1 million, the DOT made the decision to close the bridge several months early.

As of the end of 2015, the bridge was one of 154 on the state’s “red list,” which denotes “state owned bridges requiring interim inspections due to known deficiencies, poor conditions, weight restrictions, or type of construction.” Add those to the miles of state roads in need of repair or replacement, and it’s clear there’s a need for continued investment in infrastructure.

“In the old days, we could try to build our way out of certain issues with bigger roads and better roads, but because of the fiscal constraints we don’t have the money we need to keep adding to this infrastructure so we’re trying to maintain what we have now,” said Jonathan Hebert, an engineer at the DOT and the president of Chapter 3. “The biggest key is to maintain what we have. When you don’t do that, you end up with situations like the Long Bridge and Memorial Bridge, where it got to the point it was impossible to keep repairing them and it made more sense to replace them.”

The same principle applies to roadways, Hebert said, as repair costs much less than replacement.

“People ask ‘why are you paving that road that you just paved five years ago?” Hebert said. “We do it because if you don’t, you end up with a road that gets to the point you can’t repair it anymore.”

Dan Brennan, a highway maintainer and president of Chapter 17, said that due to cutbacks over the years, road crews are far behind and usually playing catchup. Brennan said that a problem they’re encountering is that while road or bridge surfaces may look good, what’s underneath — drainage, for example — can be failing. He pointed to the hole that opened up on I-93 North as an example.

“There was a similar situation that could have happened but didn’t because the DOT realized that we have a lot of pipes that are failing underneath roadways,” he said.

The repair for that problem cost millions of dollars, he said, but problems will persist because crews don’t have the manpower to cut down the trees that get in the way of repairs and clog up drainage.

Hebert said that the DOT is going about things in a smart way, building a fully-funded 10-year plan that wraps in this maintenance work.

“A lot of what we’re doing now deals with pavement preservation and getting bridges off the red list, basically trying to do as much as we can with what we have,” he said. “We can’t count on additional funding coming through.”

Brennan said that given the state’s economy, it’s essential to properly fund infrastructure maintenance.

“The infrastructure is kind of what makes New Hampshire, because without it the people who would come here to visit can’t get around,” he said. “If we let it fail and people can’t get here, it affects everything from business to tolls to liquor stores. It’s a cycle of bad decisions.”

We can be thankful that the DOT is acting as a good steward of our tax money, but it’s important that we continue to place a strong emphasis on maintaining our infrastructure. As the election approaches, you’re encouraged to ask candidates about the importance of maintaining our infrastructure.

You can read a Portsmouth Herald report on the bridge closure here (subscription may be required).

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