The New Hampshire Department of Transportation is deciding whether to proceed with the Conway Bypass, while struggling with a lack of funds to complete the project.
Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with William Cass, the Assistant Commissioner and Chief Engineer for the department on the future of the project.
(Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
This has been talked about dating back to the 80s. Two of the project's components have already been completed. A North-South road that was built, and the department rebuilt and upgraded some of the existing roadways in Conway. How has the already completed construction benefited Conway and the region in general?
I think a lot of the local infrastructure that's been done has helped movement in and around the bottleneck of the strip. Certainly, it facilitates local movement both along the North-South local road, and you know west side road tends to be a local work around from the congestion on Route 16 proper. So those roads especially in the North-South local road has seen more traffic than we had projected when it was originally built.
The Department held a hearing in Conway recently to gather public opinion on the project, and some residents were still in support of completing it. Others say it's no longer needed, and you know would be too expensive to go on and finish the last leg of this. Which way is the department leaning?
Well we were kind of gathering that feedback right now. I think the bigger issue right now is what to do with the corridor. Much of the right of way, about 75 percent of it, has already been purchased and laid out. We don't see being able to find the revenue to construct the bypass in the foreseeable future. So, the big debate and the purpose of that meeting up in Conway was to ask those questions: What does the public feel? What does the municipality feel should be done with the quarter? Are we saying that it will never be built, that it’s never needed? Is it something we should retain and hold on to for maybe potential future needs? There was the number of people who, you know, had the opinion that building more highways and more roads, especially through the Soco River Valley just wasn't what we should be looking for. There was a lot of feeling that the corridor at least should be retained, whether it be for some future transportation need, or for some local alternative transportation uses, pathways, and recreational trails. We're looking at right now to build the Conway bypass would be about $175 million in today's dollars, and in context, that's about our entire program for a year. So it's a daunting cost of trying to consider doing that.
And so far you spend some $44 million to purchase properties in that corridor. So the idea right now the department's leaning to is let's hold on to it and save it for future use?
That's been a lot of the feedback that we've heard. One issue that complicates that is because we use federal funds to acquire this right of way, and if the product doesn't move forward to construction, we are obligated to pay those federal funds back. Do we, you know, pay back those funds and hold onto the corridor for future transportation use? Or do we try to resell the properties that we bought to recoup some of the costs that we've put in and have to reimburse federal highway. The cost of the right of way that we've acquired along the bypass route is about $19 million. We are focused with our current program really on preserving and maintaining the existing infrastructure. In an age when we're having difficulties just keeping up with maintaining what we've got, looking at a significant expenditure for a new project, even if the funding were somehow available, is something needs to be considered.