Maine-New Hampshire replacement bridges may be toll financed - tax-$s short

November 13, 2010

New bridges needed between Kittery Maine and Portsmouth New Hampshire will probably be toll financed, officials say. The bridges are planned as replacements for the World War Memorial Bridge that carries old US1 through the middle of the twin cites, and the Sarah Milfred Long or Middle Bridge that carries a US1 Bypass just around them.

Six-tenths of a mile (1km) apart  the pair of 2-lane lift bridges are 88 years old (Memorial) and 70 years old (Sarah Long). They are rated in bad condition, and expensive to operate and maintain.

A month ago the governors of the two states agreed to form a Bistate Funding Task Force to examine options for funding two replacement bridges - estimated to cost $300m. A Maine-New Hampshire Connections Study has been looking at bridge alternatives since early 2009, and is due to produce a report by February 2011.

Traffic on the Memorial bridge connecting the downtowns is barely 10,000 vehicles a day versus about 17,000 on the Long Bridge with the US1 Bypass. The Study was pointing toward a plan by which the two bridges would be replaced by a single 4-lane bridge located at the US1 Bypass.

However the plan to do away with a bridge between the two city centers - the Memorial Bridge - generated strong local opposition, and elected officials forced it to be dropped from consideration. The Connections Study is now down to three alternatives all of which keep bridges at both the Bypass and downtown locations.

However the two-bridge plan is probably $100m more expensive than the single bridge solution.

One official tells us he can see no way the project can be financed without toll revenues. Neither state is in a budgetary position to make grants out of tax revenues and neither state wants to issue unfinanced debt.

Lift bridges expensive to operate

The new bridges should have lower maintenance costs than the ones they replace, but being lift bridges they will be expensive to operate. Every bridge opening has to be staged to respond to shipping requests for passage, stop traffic safely, raise the bridge, see the yacht or other craft through the bridge channel, lower the bridge, and restore traffic.

A question for the bistate funding task force will be whether just the two new bridges should be tolled, or the I-95 bridge as well.

Back of the envelop

Back of the envelop estimates are that if annual revenues of $40m are needed to defray capital and operating costs of the new bridges, and if current traffic is sustained (27k/day or 10 million/year) then a $4.00/vehicle toll will be needed ($40m/10m.)

Trouble is the I-95 bridge is only hall a mile upriver and has convenient interchanges on both sides. So if the I-95 bridge is left untolled there would be substantial diversion to the free interstate route, especially from the middle bridge (US1 Bypass).  Revenue would fall well short of the needed $40m/year.

The funding task force is likely to look at tolling the I-95 bridge as well. It runs about 60k/day vehicles or 22m/year.

Charging the same toll at all three bridges would spread the costs over a much larger volume of traffic and provide no incentive to divert from the local brdges.

To raise $40m a year from the three bridges would then require an average toll of $1.25 ($40m/32m).  If the governor's task force wanted to raise some money for operations and maintenance of the I-95 bridge itself then average tolls could be set in the range $1.50 to $2/vehicle at the three bridges.

The I-95 Piscataqua River bridge lies between two tolled lengths of I-95, the New Hampshire Turnpike and the Maine Turnpike, so tolls are well established hereabouts.

The funding task force will need to make recommendations on operations - whether responsibility should be slit at the state line in the middle of each bridge, or the bridges divided between the two departments, or some bistate authority constituted. If tolled the bistate authority could ask for investor proposals and let shareholders bear the finanical risks and rewards - or give the bistate authority itself the right to incur debt take the risk/reward of the project.

Another approach would be to hike tolls on the Maine and New Hampshire Turnpikes themselves to pay for the Kittery-Portsmouth bridges - but this departs from the user pays principle and could raise objections that I-95 turnpike users were being asked to pay for purely local bridges.

The bridge replacement study:

TOLLROADSnews 2010-11-12

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