Municipal Highways and Bridges: “How Bad Is It?”

Paul Sanderson

In this second article in the transportation infrastructure series (see "Follow the Money, NH Transportation Infrastructure in Decline, Jan/Feb 2013 issue), we will move beyond a description of how transportation infrastructure is funded to try to identify for local officials where they might learn more about the condition of municipal highways and bridges in our state, and their role in operating and maintaining the system. I emphasize the word "try", because one of the current realities is that there is no single or convenient location where information about these issues is compiled. It is difficult to compare the condition of road systems of municipalities, either individually or on a regional basis. We are not the only ones talking about these issues. The question of road funding is squarely before the New Hampshire Legislature. New Hampshire Public Radio recently (during the week of March 11, 2013) aired a three part series on the issue as part of the StateImpact NH program.

What we do know is based on information collected by State Agencies, the Regional Planning Commissions, the University of New Hampshire and individual municipalities.

The duty to construct, reconstruct, and maintain the Class V highways located in each municipality is assigned by RSA 231:3, and is perpetual. This is a mandate, and a local service that must be funded each year.

Along with the local welfare program, this is one of the very few municipal programs which must be undertaken and funded by every municipality in every year. Thus, for local officials, it is a core responsibility. If the local highway system experiences defects or failures, it creates more than an economic disturbance. If there is an "insufficiency," meaning a defect which renders the road impassable in any safe manner, and local officials know about the problem and fail to respond, the municipality could be held liable for the personal injury or property damage which occurs to a traveler as a result of the defect. This is the "Insufficiency Law" found at RSA 231:90-92. Local officials must constantly evaluate the condition of their highways and take immediate action to keep them safe and in good order. The spring season is a prime example of the challenges that road agents and other public works officials face. As noted in the Union Leader edition of March 17, 2013, under the byline of Nancy Bean Foster;

According to Dick Perusse, New Boston's road agent, "In New Hampshire, a lot of our dirt roads started out as horse paths and were just widened a bit to accommodate automobiles later on. When mud season hit, the folks just used to lay pine boughs across the roads and drive over them. In really bad spots, they used logs and laid them horizontally across, creating corduroy roads. Though our forefathers made travel easier for themselves using these methods, they made roads a mess for us. All that organic material eventually rotted over time, creating a rich topsoil. Topsoil doesn't drain well. It holds the water. And of course, water plus dirt equals mud."

In addition Cathy Willmott of the Goffstown Highway department explains, "Those who live on paved roads have their own share of headaches as potholes suddenly seem to come out of nowhere, flattening tires and snapping axles. As the frost heaves melt and settle back into place, cracks form in the asphalt and weaken certain spots in the road. All it takes is a car going a bit too fast to hit that compromised area, and a large chuck of the roadway can flip out of place. Each subsequent strike on and around the hole by another tire just makes it deeper and wider. Within a day or two, a small pothole can become a big monster. It's still too cold to put down asphalt to fill the holes. Instead, crews fill the gaps with crushed stone, a temporary fix."

The Municipal system of highways is larger than the state system of highways, but its exact extent is not clearly compiled or reported.

New Hampshire's public road system is believed to consist of approximately 16,125 miles. The State highway system has 4,559 system miles (Class I, II, III, IV). The State maintains 4,269 miles (Class I, II, & III) and other public authorities maintain the remaining 11,856 miles (Class IV, V). Class IV highways make up 290 miles of the State highway system, but are maintained by local municipalities. We know of these miles because the NH Department of Transportation maintains a list of such mileage for the purpose of computing state highway aid pursuant to RSA 235:23.

There is a dataset available in the GRANIT system which shows "NH Public Roads". This system allows a user of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) access to statewide datasets showing various items that are important to planners, public officials and others and permits the information to be shown graphically. This is a dataset maintained by the NH Department of Transportation, but there are limitations to this information. The GRANIT system itself is a collaborative service of the University of New Hampshire and the NH Office of Energy and Planning.

There are many additional miles of Class VI roads which are public highways open to public use. There are also privately owned roads that are often accessed by the public. However, since there is no duty for the public to maintain either Class VI or private highways and no requirement to maintain records detailing the amount or location of this mileage, the precise number and location of these miles is unknown. Some of this additional mileage may well be locally maintained if the local governing body has designated an area as an "emergency lane" pursuant to RSA 231:59-a. None of these areas need be reported to the state since no state aid is available to maintain them.

To make it even more confusing, some of the Class V mileage and Class VI mileage that is known and reported may be incorrectly reported. Pursuant to RSA 229:5, VI and VII, if a Class V highway is not maintained in suitable condition for travel for five successive years, it automatically reverts to Class VI; while if a Class VI road is so maintained for five successive years, it is automatically reclassified as Class V. Because these changes occur by operation of law, any municipal mileage report may be compiled and reported to the Department of Transportation in good faith yet may be legally incorrect.

There are more municipally-owned bridges than there are state-owned bridges. What we know of their condition is based upon the state bridge inspection program.

The NH DOT maintains information on 3,828 bridges of all types in the state, and include those owned by the State, municipalities, and railroads. Of those, 353 are on the 2012 "Municipal Redlist." The location of all of the bridges monitored are shown on maps entitled "Town Bridge Maps," available on the NHDOT website at however these maps have not been updated since 2007.  

The Regional Planning Commissions have information on regional transportation issues and needs.

Regional Planning Commissions are created pursuant to RSA 36:46 as nonprofit local governmental organizations. Each Commission serves in an advisory role to the local governments in their area, and provides professional planning assistance in the areas of local growth, efficient land use, transportation access, and environmental protection. While each municipality is assigned to a specific commission area, membership is optional. Municipalities may enter into contractual agreements with the Regional Planning Commissions, and many commissions provide part time professional staff assistance to local land use boards through such contracts. The nine commissions are affiliated with one another as the New Hampshire Association of Regional Planning Commissions. Their website has links to the sites of each of the nine member commissions.

The Regional Planning Commissions also work with state agencies, including the Office of Energy and Planning, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Environmental Services, on developing transportation plans. They provide local and regional input into the creation of the state's Ten Year Plan, which is updated every legislative session. They also help to study transportation corridors which move between municipalities and regions. In the more populous areas of the state, they are designated as "Metropolitan Planning Organizations" or "MPO's" for the purpose of planning for the use of federal transportation funds. As such, the staff of the Regional Planning Commissions creates and has access to large amounts of information about local transportation systems and how they interact on a regional basis.

While they are affiliated, each Regional Planning Commission is independent, operates its own website, and describes its transportation program in a different way. The quantity and quality of the information they have also varies, and is based upon many factors. For example, here is a statement from the Rockingham Regional Planning Commission as it describes information on "road centerlines" which are a type of map showing the highway system:

"Road Centerlines were provided by the NH Department of Transportation (NH DOT) in June 2008. The data was initially extracted from the USGS DLG's 1:24,000/1:25,000 and subsequently updated to incorporate road realignments and new road construction. Updates are mapped using Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. Many of the roads within the Rockingham Planning Region have been updated by Rockingham Planning Commission and by NH Department of Transportation through ongoing efforts.

"RPC makes no claim to the accuracy of this data. We do attempt to incorporate more accurate information when we can get it, either through municipal feedback or through the statewide Road Inventory process."

None of the websites of the commissions completely describe the array of information that is available or the experience and expertise of their professional staff. Thus, local officials seeking more information on local roads and regional transportation should contact their Regional Planning Commission for assistance. Membership in the Regional Planning Commission is a valuable resource to such officials and enables such officials to obtain the assistance needed to compile the information they need to obtain scarce federal and state assistance for safety, road, and bridge improvements in their municipalities.

If there is no centralized location for this information, how are local officials and public works employees to learn more about these issues and the steps that need to be taken to manage a municipal highway and bridge system?

Local public works officials often speak with one another, collaborate by sharing information and experience, and provide assistance in the form of mutual aid to other municipalities that either do not have access to a crucial piece of equipment or must respond to an emergency. The emergency might be widespread, such as general flooding in 2005 or the ice storm of 2008, or it might be localized such as when a tornado heavily damaged infrastructure and caused loss of life in the Northwood and Deerfield area in 2008. They have formed the New Hampshire Public Works Association, and more information to learn more about this group.

The primary source for training on municipal highway issues is the "Road Scholar" program of the UNH Technology Transfer Center (often called T2). The center offers over 59 courses on a wide range of legal, technical, environmental, safety and supervisory subjects during the year. Persons attending the courses can achieve four levels of certification based upon the number of hours of training received. A "Master Road Scholar" has received a minimum of 100 hours of training across the entire range of subjects offered at the center before receiving this designation. The sessions are not just for road agents and operators of heavy equipment. Many of the courses are also appropriate for local elected and appointed officials, providing valuable information about highway law and legal liability, road signs and speed limits, local permitting, municipal budgeting for public works, and supervision of employees. 

The Technology Transfer Center is part of the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the US Department of Transportation (USDOT). It is connected to the LTAP program staff of all of the other states and provides a clearinghouse for publications and information on all aspects of municipal highway and bridge design and maintenance. Because it is part of the engineering program at the University of New Hampshire, it provides direct services to municipalities in the areas of maintenance of gravel roads, setting up a road budget, maintenance of culverts, maintenance of roadside ditches, and pavement preservation.

For the future, there may be better ways developed to collect and share information about road and bridge locations and conditions. Until then, local officials will rely in part upon citizens to tell them when road conditions are deficient or intolerable. While responding to complaints is necessary, it is not a plan for success. It is well documented that keeping a good road in good condition is much less expensive than rebuilding a road which has failed. The need for planning and the tools available to local officials to plan for future major road work projects will be the subject of our next segment in this series.

Paul Sanderson is Staff Attorney for the New Hampshire Municipal Association. He may be contacted at 800.852.3358 ext. 3408 or by email.