HAMPTON Residents weighed in on their hopes for the state’s plans to rehabilitate or replace the Neil R. Underwood Memorial Bridge, a decision expected to be made by next year.
In a packed Marston School gymnasium, state officials told residents Wednesday they will complete a study of a bridge rehabilitation option by this fall, then will finish examining options for replacing the bridge by this winter. Whether the state’s No. 1 red-listed bridge is rehabbed or replaced, and what kind of replacement it would be, will hopefully be decided by spring 2019.
State officials have said the bridge will likely be replaced, but they explained they are required to at least examine a rehabilitation alternative as part of the bridge replacement’s process.
The project is expected to cost $28 million based on preliminary estimates, staff from the state Department of Transportation. Construction is expected to begin in 2023 and last a few years.
Some residents insisted the state must build a new bridge and were displeased state officials were even spending time looking at the feasibility of a rehab, concerned about safety as well as limitations for alleviating traffic problems. Selectman Mary-Louise Woolsey was concerned the bridge was unsafe to drive on even now and said officials should be doing everything they can to replace the bridge immediately.
Earlier in the meeting, DOT bridge engineer Jim Murphy said the bridge has “significant issues,” from cracked and eroded piers to rusted bearings that may cause locking. The bridge’s lift mechanism has failed twice since summer 2017, stuck in the down position for two days last July and in the up position for more than an hour this past May.
While DOT staff told attendees the bridge was perfectly safe to drive, Woolsey questioned whether work on the bridge had been delayed too long, comparing the bridge’s red-list status to her car needing an inspection sticker.
“The state won’t let me get away with driving an unsafe car. Why are you allowing this unsafe bridge?” said Woolsey. “Why are you wasting time talking about rehabilitating a 70-year-old bridge that’s in terrible shape?”
DOT project manager Jennifer Reczek said bridges are placed on the red list when they drop on a certain safety scale, which goes up to a rating of nine, down to a four, giving state officials a heads up that the bridge needs to be addressed in the near future. She said the status is not an indication the bridge cannot accommodate the approximately 18,000 cars that pass over it per day in peak season.
Former selectman Fred Rice said the bridge needs to have twice the current number of lanes to match with the number of lanes that meet the bridge on both sides. He also said the new bridge should be a fixed one instead of a drawbridge.
“I think we would be much better served if we concentrated on what the end result needs to be a four-lane structure that does not have to open 800 times a year,” said Rice.
Cathy Silver, director of the Blue Ocean Discovery Center at Hampton Beach and who lives near the bridge, called for the bridge to be rehabilitated so it could maintain its current footprint to avoid disturbing the environment. She said her neighbors feel similarly.
Silver said if advocates for a new bridge are motivated to change to a fixed bridge, she said officials should change the bridge to a set schedule for lifting rather than the current policy to lift the bridge when called upon by boats around high tide. She pointed out that Portsmouth is on a bridge schedule and believes, if Portsmouth residents can enjoy a limit on their bridge going up, Hampton and Seabrook residents can, too.
Angel Eaton, who owns Al Gauron’s Deep Sea Fishing and Whale Watching, said she and other business owners and boat captains have demonstrated they are open to a bridge schedule. She said many who use the bridge agreed this past summer to an informal schedule for using the lift, and that people have noticed the bridge went up less in 2018 than previous years.
Hampton Beach Area Commission Chairman Nancy Stiles asked if DOT staff planned to meet with fishermen to discuss options they prefer, and Reczek said a meeting is hoped to take place this fall. Eaton said her boats would need at least 22 feet in height from the water line to clear the bridge.
Some said traffic should not be a priority when designing the bridge, only safety. Former Hampton police officer Vic DeMarco said traffic will be congested either way.
“I don’t know what traffic has to do with it. We need a safe bridge. Forget about traffic,” said DeMarco. “It’s not going to change no matter how many lanes you put in there.”