From StateImpact: Why N.H. Roads Are Looking 'Beat Up'

Mar 12, 2013

This week StateImpactNH has a three part series about roads: First, we looked at just how bad our roads are. Today, we’ll tell you the 5 reasons our roads are looking beat up. And finally, we’ll look at what that means for your car, your pocketbook, and your safety.

We hope you'll visit StateImpactNH to read our road series there. Below is the broadcast story we did on the same subject.

Today is Town Meeting Day, and people across the state are looking at town budgets, trying to figure out how to keep their town roads paved.  At the same time, state lawmakers are looking for a solution to state-wide road paving problems.

But why are roads so bad this year, to begin with? It has to do with two things. Water – and money.

Where potholes come from: 

When the temperature drops, the asphalt on top of a road wants to contract. But it can’t, so it cracks. Then, the soil underneath it, gets wet. When that wet soil freezes, it expands, pushing the asphalt up, making bumps in the road.  Later, when temperatures rise, the soil washes away and you’re left with a pot hole.

Brian Sullivan is the City of Franklin’s public works director. He’s giving me a tour of the city’s roads.  

You see how there's rutting? The road doesn't have very good shape to it, there's no crown...

Sullivan says winters in NH are always bad for roads. But this year, the roads are looking worse than ever.

In fact, some towns, like Somersworth, are emailing residents warning them to take caution while driving.

And while the heavy snowfall and vacillating temperatures have been bad for New Hampshire roads, Sullivan says really, the problem is money.

With the state cutting back on the block grant money, which is the highway money that's given to all cities and towns for transportation improvements, plus  the cost of materials,  you're getting less miles of road paved.

Last year, Franklin received only 75 percent of the $220,000 in roads money it had gotten from the state the year before.

N.H. towns and cities maintain 12,000 miles of local roads which they pay for with local property taxes, and block grants from the state highway fund. The same highway fund pays for the state’s 4500 miles of highways and state roads.  About half of the $277 million dollars expected to come into the highway fund this year will come from gas tax revenue. The rest is made up of registration  and other fees.

The thing is -- lawmakers haven’t raised the gas tax since 1992.  

But since then, the value of each dollar has decreased by 40% thanks to inflation.  But that’s not the worst of it, when it comes to paving roads, Bill Boynton at NHDOT says the skyrocketing price of petroleum is the real kicker

The price of asphalt has increased something like 450 percent in the last fifteen years.

In fact, it’s doubled just in the last 5 ye ars. That’s because asphalt is made from petroleum, so it is subjected to the same kind of rising prices as gasoline. Speaking of which –  Brian Sullivan in Franklin says -- the cost of transporting asphalt from tar pits to nearby Northfield, and then again to Franklin has also increased because of oil prices.

What was a $100,000 road in the 1990's, today costs $350,000, maybe $400,000.

Meanwhile, the highway block grants towns like Franklin get from the state to pay for road repair were reduced statewide by $4 million dollars this year.

So, NH roads are getting worse.  And Bill Boynton at the DOT says you’ll especially notice this on roads that don’t get a lot of traffic.

We have 970 miles of so-called unnumbered state roads, like East Conway Rd., Meredith Neck Rd., we're really not paying any attention to those right now.

And that doesn’t just mean car repair headaches for folks who drive on these state roads. It also means more budget headaches for the state.  That’s because it costs twenty times as much to repair a bad road, then to pave a decent road.

If you maintain a road, that costs about $50,000 a mile. If you have to completely rebuild that road, it costs $1 million a mile.

So, the state’s strategy has been to focus their resources on keeping the good roads good, not rebuilding the bad roads. This year, that means repaving about 350 miles of the more than 4500 miles of state-owned roads.

Which is why it may seem like public workers just keep paving the good roads over and over, while, say - the road you live on -- gets worse, and worse, and worse.  

There are two different ways lawmakers are proposing to boost the Highway fund this session. Representative David Campbell – a Democrat of Nashua -- proposes raising the gas tax by 15 cents over four years.

We face an infrastructure crisis that is on its way to becoming a catastrophe, not just a crisis.

And then there are two competing bills to legalize high stakes gambling in the state. Both allocate casino revenue into the highway fund.

But getting either of those policies through both chambers – could be a very bumpy road.