Derry and Londonderry are a bit off the hook.
Officials of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) and one longtime community member confirmed in a meeting Tuesday night, July 15, that however the proposed Exit 4-A off Interstate 93 plays out, neither Derry nor Londonderry will be liable for more than the $5 million they have committed to bringing the exit to their towns. But Derry wants it in writing, while Londonderry wants to see more cooperation between the two towns.
Derry Council Chairman Mark Osborne moderated a meeting in his town’s Council chambers with DOT officials including Project Manager Peter Stamnas, Commissioner Chris Clement, and Director of Project Development Bill Cass. Councilors and the audience also heard from State Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry; Londonderry Town Councilor John Farrell; and Roberta Robie, a Derry resident who fought for the project in past years.
Stamnas began by sketching the proposed widening of I-93 from Windham to the I-293 “split” in Manchester. The widening has long been advocated by legislators such as Rausch, who believe it will relieve congestion and bring business to Derry and Londonderry. The federal highway is currently being widened in Salem and undergoing improvements at the Exit 5 interchange in Londonderry.
Stamnas said construction began in 2006 and will cost $775 million in total. But $350 million of that is ongoing or completed, resulting in 60 percent of the project being done. This includes the work at Exits 2 and 3, which will be ongoing for the next 1 1/2 years, and Exit 5, which is expected to be wrapped up this summer, Stamnas said.
The widening to Manchester remains to be done at an estimated cost of $250 million, Stamnas said. The widening will be paid for by the 4 1/2 cent gas tax increase, which went into effect July 1, and $50 million in expected federal funding.
“We are aggressively designing the project and obtaining rights of way,” Stamnas said. “We plan to start construction of the first phase in 2016 and to be done by 2020.”
Information and updates are available on www.rebuildingI93.com, he said.
The Council and audience generally agreed that I-93’s expansion was a good thing, and the widening received few comments. Exit 4-A was another story.
Who’s paying for 4-A?
Derry Town Councilor Thomas Cardon, who had been studying 4-A for years before he took office, expressed concern about the funding. The exit is expected to cost $50 million, he said, with the state committed to $19 million.
“Where is the last $31 million to come from? Is it to be split between Derry and Londonderry?” he asked.
Stamnas said, “The state, Derry and Londonderry need to work together for funding.”
Clement said his goal was to work with federal partners to provide the rest of the funding. “Derry and Londo1nderry have put in their $5 million,” he said, referring to their original commitment of funds. “The match from the towns is already there. I want to get the rest of it funded as a federal project.”
Clement added that his department is willing to “take the lead” in obtaining those federal funds, but said he needs formal permission from the two towns before proceeding.
“For the past 29 years there hasn’t been a ‘lead’ to take,” Cardon observed wryly.
But there are still action items the towns and state need to work on together, Clement added. The environmental impact statement still needs to be completed. He envisioned an aggressive time frame for this, with the statement filed by the end of the year.
Cass said the Environmental Impact statement also needs to be funded. “Up to now, it has been town-driven and we have been in an advisory capacity,” he said.
Cardon said $5 million was enough. “It’s unrealistic,” he said, “to expect Derry to kick in any more.”
Cardon said the project has gone from an effort to help economic development in Derry to a regional transportation plan, and with that, he said, “The state and federal government should pay.”
“If it’s above the $5 million we will have that discussion,” Clement said.
The question of who, exactly, will be helped by 4-A was introduced, with Councilor Al Dimmock saying it won’t benefit Derry “one iota.” Despite Clement’s assurances, he worried that Derry would “get stuck paying more money.”
It won’t benefit downtown, Dimmock said, and will divert traffic from the area, leaving East and West Broadway (Route 102) “a ghost town.” Dimmock said this was not what the town needs to promote development in its downtown.
Rausch countered, “Since when did Derry secede from the State of New Hampshire?” He pointed out that the economic benefit to the region would also be an economic benefit to Derry. Commuters do not stop now because of the congestion downtown, he said, but they will if that is relieved. “We need people to come to Derry, be able to move around and drive safely,” he said.
“Why should we take it on the chin and the rest of the region benefit?” Dimmock asked. “And if the idea is so good, why are we still fighting over it?”
Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores asked, “What percent of the downtown traffic would be reduced by 4-A?”
Stamnas said the estimated reduction was 30 percent.
Former State Sen. Bob Letourneau, R-Derry, said he’d worked and hoped for 4-A for 25 years. It will relieve congestion at the current Exit 4, which is, at rush hour, “a horror show,” he said.
And where is the paper trail?
Osborne pressed for more clarity on the funding. “The cost for 4-A will be $52 million and the state of New Hampshire will contribute $19 million?” he asked.
Cass said, “That is the funding that has been identified at this point. We need to work with our federal partners.”
Clement said all the highway projects would come to a halt if the government failed to fund the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which will be “broke” in two weeks. “If we don’t get funding, the entire 10-year transportation plan is null and void,” he said.
“How much money can we expect from our federal partners?” Osborne asked.
Cass said, “Without approval, there are no federal funds. We need to complete the final Environmental Impact statement, and then we’ll be eligible for aid.”
“So the town of Derry is ‘capped’ at the $5 million?” Osborne asked.
Rausch took the microphone again. “It’s disturbing,” he said, “that you don’t understand the $5 million.”
“I don’t need to be patronized,” Osborne re-sponded. “I am just trying to understand.”
Rausch noted that Derry officials had lost the documentation obligating them to the $5 million.
The $5 million was the result of a lawsuit by Boston North, the former developer of 4-A, “and that’s why we have an obligation to $5 million,” he said. “Before you think of abandoning this project, I would advise you to get legal counsel.”
Rausch said to his understanding, the Environmental Impact statement was complete with the exception of mitigation.
Osborne asked which documents were missing.
“All the documentation for the lawsuit,” Rausch said.
“When?” Osborne said.
Rausch said it was his belief that the documentation was misplaced during the administration of a now-dead mayor.
Londonderry Town Councilor John Farrell offered his perspective, noting that his town’s attorney has been “fully engaged” in 4-A matters for five years and is aware of the liability.
Farrell said, “You are all aware of the $1 billion development going up in Londonderry, Woodmont Commons.” The proposed exit will benefit Woodmont and also open up 200 acres on the east side of 4-A for development, he said.
According to Farrell, “It is also Londonderry’s understanding that the cost is capped at $5 million.” He added, “We did not ‘lose’ the lawsuit. We settled, and it obligated Londonderry for $5 million, Derry for $5 million, and Boston North for $5 million.”
Farrell said his Town Council “strongly encourages” the two towns to work together through their planners.
But the paper trail to obligate Derry is conspicuously absent. Cardon said he has a copy of the 1991 settlement with Boston North, which obligates Londonderry to put up its $5 million. “There is not one signature from Derry,” he said. “I do believe Derry is obligated for its $5 million, but I would like to see it on paper.”
Roberta Robie, a Derry resident who worked on the project on the state level in its early stages, said, “The DOT corroborated everything I’ve been telling you. You are not obligated for more than the $5 million. You have been told the DOT and the Feds will pay for the rest of it.”
Robie accused the Derry Council of using the exit as a “political football,” and Osborne asked her to stick to the project itself.
“Now that the funding is in place, you’re just looking for excuses,” Robie countered.
Robie was on the original Citizens Advisory Committee for 4-A and went to meetings with CLD, the firm contracted for the Environmental Impact Study. “I have binders of papers an inch thick,” she said. “The Feds told us what to do.” She said she had saved every piece of documentation from the meetings.
Katsakiores observed, “If Roberta has papers, maybe the contract is somewhere in those papers.”
In the public comment section later in the Council meeting, Robie clarified that she is not in favor of the taxpayers paying any more for 4-A.
Osborne agreed and concluded the segment with the DOT by saying he feels an obligation to his constituents to keep their financial commitment down. He quoted the late Ronald Reagan as saying, “Trust – but verify.”