The widening of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire will be delayed again, after a federal district court judge ordered state and federal highway officials yesterday to further study the environmental consequences of the project.
US District Judge Paul Barbadoro said the highway departments used out-dated population projections in their federal environmental impact report to evaluate the effect of a wider highway on air and secondary roads. The agencies failed to include the estimated 35,000 people who are expected to move to New Hampshire because of the wider highway, Barbadoro said.
The $750 million project, on and off the drawing board for nearly two decades, would double the number of lanes to four on each side of a 20-mile stretch between Salem and Manchester, a popular corridor for New Hampshire residents who work in Massachusetts and Bay State residents who vacation in the White Mountains.
More than 110,000 vehicles travel the highway each day, more than twice the volume the highway was designed to carry when it was built in the early 1960s.
New Hampshire highway officials had hoped to begin construction next summer, but now do not know how long the additional study could delay the project.
"We're still trying to digest what it all means," said Bill Boynton, New Hampshire Transportation Department spokesman. "On one hand, we are encouraged that some elements in the case have been dismissed, but on the other hand, we need to go back and do some work."
The Conservation Law Foundation, which filed the lawsuit in February 2006, applauded the decision, although it will continue pushing for a commuter rail as part of the project.
Barbadoro agreed with highway officials that building a commuter rail line from Manchester to Massachusetts would not reduce traffic flow on I-93 enough to scale back the project to three lanes. Adding commuter rail would have added a whole other round of regulatory approvals with Massachusetts.
The ruling pointed out that the most heavily traveled section of the road, at the New Hampshire-Massachusetts state line, will experience severe congestion by 2020, even with the four lanes.
"Our hope is in the end this additional review will show that widening to four lanes is not a wise investment of public dollars and we need a more balanced approach to address traffic along this corridor that includes rail," said Tom Irwin, a staff attorney in the Conservation Law Foundation's New Hampshire office.
The delay comes as New Hampshire grapples with a serious shortfall of transportation project dollars. The state Transportation Department recently announced that its 10-year list of priority projects will take 35 years to complete, and putting off a ground-breaking for the I-93 widening project will only add to the costs. In the last five years, the project's price tag has nearly doubled.
Highway officials say there is an urgent need to address the heavy traffic, which causes miles of back-ups and frequent fender-benders for commuters and weekend travelers.
Also, 18 of the 47 bridges in that area are structurally deficient. The project received the federal go-ahead in 2005.
But many environmentalists and residents worry that the wider highway might further expedite growth in southern New Hampshire, where acres of farmlands and woodlands have been transformed into subdivisions.
The anticipated residential growth is expected to stretch much farther north than Manchester, with even the state's capital, Concord, feeling the effects.