Status of Area Transportation Highlighted at Chamber Meeting

John DeBaun, senior vice president of market lending for Pentucket Bank, recalls a certain trip he used to make on Interstate 93. “It was Exit 2 Southbound, and there was a ‘cloverleaf’ exchange,” he told a roomful of businesspeople and town officials Friday. “Well, the way it was set up wasn’t very lucky. But now it’s like gliding into town.”

In a May 20 breakfast meeting, three transportation professionals gave an overview of what’s been done, what’s being done and what needs to be done on the I-93 corridor to bring southern New Hampshire closer to the world and the world to it.

The event was sponsored by the Greater Derry/Londonderry and the Salem Chambers of Commerce and was held at the Brookstone Event Center in Derry.

Speakers were Thomas Malafronte, deputy director of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport; Wendy Johnson, an engineer with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) and project manager for the I-93 widening from Salem to Manchester; and Mark Sanborn, director of government relations for Concord Coach bus lines.

Donna Morris and Will Stewart, directors respectively of the Salem and Derry/Londonderry Chambers, introduced the guest speakers.

“I am going to give you the 30,000-foot view,” Malafronte quipped.

The airport has a $45 million budget and serves New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont, and most of it is in Londonderry. “It is truly a regional airport,” Malafronte said. Of the users, 52 percent are from out of New England, and 33 percent are from New Hampshire. That leaves 8 percent from Massachusetts, which has dropped since Southwest came into Boston.

“There’s a turf war,” Malafronte acknowledged. Five percent of users come from Maine and 2 percent from Vermont, he said.

Airlines flying out of Manchester are Southwest, American, Delta and United. There are 30 to 40 departures a day, making Manchester “one stop to the world.”

Manchester handles 160 million pounds of cargo and is the third-largest cargo depot in New England, Malafronte said.

Users have noted the empty ticket counters in the terminal, but Malafronte said that is because between 2001 and 2013, 10 airlines condensed into four. The good news: “They are four strong airlines, responsible for 80 percent of the domestic seats in the country,” he said.

Many customers have asked Malafronte when Jet Blue is going to be flying out of Manchester. It’s not an “if” but a “when,” he said, noting that the airport staff have created incentive packages and worked with the state on what they can offer. “Now it’s up to them,” Malafronte said.

The airport is responsible for approximately 4,000 jobs, with 1,900 directly within the airport and 1,920 off the grounds, he said.

Malafronte’s plan is threefold:

• Maintaining what they have. “We want to keep the airlines that are parked at our gates, parked at our gates,” he said.

• Enhance what they have. He referenced the “load factor,” or number of seats filled, and said it was usually at 87 percent. He’s added flights to certain destinations, such as 5,000 more seats to Detroit.

• Expanding into new markets. “It’s a competitive environment,” Malafronte said. “We’re not a ‘hub,’ so we have to work twice as hard.”

But they’re getting there, he said, noting that Southwest’s flights are filled more than those out of any Southwest airport in the country.

He is working on a project to improve passenger flow, and has moved the rental car facility to a separate building. He and his staff are remodeling the atrium to give it more of a New Hampshire feel, he said.

The more-traveled road

Johnson is the project manager for the I-95 project in Hampton Falls; the F.E.Everett widening in Nashua, Merrimack and Bedford; and the I-93 project from Salem to Manchester.

Johnson divided her presentation into three parts: what’s been done, what’s being done, and what is left to be done.

Accomplishments so far include “quick hits,” such as new park-and-ride areas, bridges, and improving bus service. The actual widening between exits 1, 2, and 3 was completed in August 2015, with three lanes in each direction.

Exit 3 to Exit 4 is in the works now and will improve capacity between the exits, with three lanes in each direction. R.S. Audley is the contractor for the $55 million project.

Exit 5 to I-93 South will see four lanes both ways and is expected to be completed in 2019. A.J. Coleman is the contractor and the cost is $51 million.

Johnson said the Department of Transportation has tried to be accommodating to motorists and has provided a temporary breakdown lane. They have a tow truck available to take the car to the nearest exit north or the nearest exit south, from which the motorist is on his own.

Exit 4 in Londonderry, feeding traffic to Londonderry and Derry, will be widened to three lanes in each direction, Johnson said. The Pillsbury and Ash Street bridges will be replaced and the bridge over Kendall Pond Road will be widened. This will cost $65 million and is expected to be completed by 2020, she said.

Exit 4 to Exit 5 will involve two miles of I-93 with three lanes in each direction, and widening the bridge over Stonehenge Road. Johnson said this will cost $33 million and is also expected to be completed by 2020.

According to Johnson, the widening should have no effect on the proposed Exit 4A, also under the auspices of DOT. “This project and 4A,” she said, “can accommodate each other.”

Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith was in the audience and asked Johnson if there was a possibility of widening the highway to four lanes instead of three.

Johnson said that could happen but is not part of the plan right now. “What’s holding us back,” she said, “is the environmental issues. We need to deal with the salt and the watersheds. But we’re working toward that,” she said.

Take the bus

Sanborn gave an overview of how Concord Coach became aligned with Boston Express. “In early 2000, a commuter rail initiative failed,” he said. “The Legislature said, ‘We have to do something.'” So they talked to Harry Blunt, owner of Concord Coach. According to Sanborn, Blunt said, “I’ll run a line with our model if you subsidize it.”

By April of this year, the Boston Express had seen 4.2 million passengers. It makes 28 round trips a day and 17 on the weekends.

“It is our contribution to economic development,” Sanborn said. “It connects this area with Boston.”

While Concord Coach and Dartmouth Coach are still privately owned companies, Boston Express belongs to the taxpayers through DOT and the legislature, Sanborn said.

Seventy-three percent of Boston Express users are commuters and pay a reduced fare, while 27 percent are full fare riders, Sanborn said. Of those, 14 percent are occasional users, going to the city for shopping or entertainment, and 13 percent are headed for Logan Airport.

“We are able to provide an option,” he said.