08262021 Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan

Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, center, speaks with City Manager Ed Morris, left, and Mayor Charlene Lovett, right, during the legislator’s visit to Pleasant Street on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, to inspect progress on revitalization efforts presently underway on the historic roadway.

CLAREMONT — Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan visited Claremont on Tuesday where she toured the city’s $4.8 million downtown reconstruction project, discussed the city’s infrastructure needs with local officials, and fielded questions about the federal government’s proposed infrastructure bill.

Housing, road and bridge maintenance, workforce development, and broadband were among the infrastructure topics prioritized by city officials and local legislators during an afternoon conversation with Hassan, who visited Claremont to tour the city’s revitalization of historic Pleasant Street, which will upgrade the downtown’s aging water, sewer, and drainage system and rebuild the street level to accommodate greater pedestrian traffic, outdoor dining, seating, and public gatherings.

A $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday, Aug. 11, is expected to receive a vote in the House of Representatives by Monday, Sept. 27.

The infrastructure bill includes $550 billion in new federal spending, which breaks down to $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access; $110 billion for roads, bridges, and other projects; $25 billion for airports; and hundreds of billions of dollars toward repairing and replacing aging public works systems.

The bill would also renew and revamp existing infrastructure and transportation fundings that were set to expire in October.

Hassan and local officials briefly discussed the recent damage to Route 12 in Charlestown as an example of the region’s urgent need for infrastructure support.

A significant section of Route 12 — an important corridor connecting towns like Charlestown and Claremont to Walpole, Keene, and Bellows Falls, Vermont — will remain closed for several more months following severe damage that resulted from water saturation and flooding in early August.

“A section of the southbound lane separated from the northbound lane, with a hole in the asphalt that’s sloughing down into the river,” Tim St. Pierre, an owner of B.U.R. Construction, told Hassan.

Ironically, the state was just completing a roughly $15 million project to stabilize Route 12 between Charlestown and Walpole, just south of the collapse, according to St. Pierre. This project, which was proposed several years ago, initially intended to have a larger scope but was scaled back in cost over time.

“And now the brand new road cannot be accessed because this other section of road is awaiting emergency engineering,” St. Pierre said.

B.U.R. Construction is the contracting company overseeing Claremont’s downtown reconstruction project.

While the recent flooding dealt the final blow, Route 12 was an aging infrastructure, approximately 50 years old, whose stability had been maintained, according to St. Pierre.

Hassan said that such erosion of New Hampshire’s roads and highways has been “the story of the state” for years, due to frequent water corrosion and aging, failing culverts.

“The longer time passes . . . the less repair we do, the more you’re going to see what appear to be sudden events but are actually not,” Hassan said.

One concern among city officials was the bill’s formulas for distributing funds, to assure a fairer distribution of project funding within the state.

According to Nancy Merrill, Claremont director of Planning and Economic Development, the planning region representing Sullivan County received the smallest dollar amount in transportation infrastructure projects of any planning region in New Hampshire’s 10-year transportation plan.

Hassan said the Senate aims to develop provisions in the final bill to give local municipalities more direct access to project funds, as opposed to simply appropriating money to the state to delegate its distribution.

This could potentially include funds for Amtrak-related projects, Hassan said. Rather than a community having to depend on the state to request federal funds for rail projects, a municipality or county might be able to apply for funds directly.

Notably, the Senate bill includes the most funding for Amtrak since the rail service’s founding in 1971.

“We’re in the middle of figuring out in the budget package how to make sure, when a state does decide to opt out from wanting to do something, that localities have several options to apply on their own,” Hassan said.

A larger $3.5 trillion spending bill is also on the horizon, with Democratic Party leaders in The House hopeful to complete work on that spending bill by Friday, Oct. 1.

Hassan said that, between the two bills, a spectrum of needs prioritized by Claremont officials will be addressed through funding supports, from creating more affordable housing options for middle-class professionals to workforce incentives for critical fields with labor needs like healthcare and construction.

“The fact [is] that we have delayed or underinvested in a lot of things for a lot of years and that many studies and economists are saying that this [proposed] level of investment is important to grow the economy and compete with [other countries],” Hassan said.

Hassan said she is optimistic about the passage of both spending bills, though the $3.5 trillion proposal has the more uphill battle of the two.

The Democrats hold a slim majority in both congressional houses, though the larger spending bill may not garner the needed support from party centrists and has no support from congressional Republicans at its current cost. In contrast, the infrastructure bill received bipartisan support in its Senate passage.

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