When it comes to Northern Pass, locally controlled roads is something the N.H. Department of Transportation doesn’t want to touch.
After DOT’s assistant commissioner said the department doesn’t have the resources to monitor Northern Pass construction within municipal roads, a question resurfaced as to whether the project can proceed without local approval.
“The department has a policy of not using local roadways for project traffic control unless approved by the local community,” Assistant DOT Commissioner William Cass wrote the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee on Dec. 22.
“The department would not look favorably on using non-state roads for detours and traffic control on this utility project unless this was a request and/or approved by the local community that is responsible for roadway operations and maintenance,” he said. “The department does not have the authority or resources to issue permits on local roads.”
Cass wrote in response to a request to the SEC by Eversource Energy, parent company of Northern Pass, which is asking the SEC to delegate authority in regard to several items assigned to DOT.
The roads in question are in Pittsburg, Clarksville and Stewartstown, all of which are on record opposing Northern Pass.
“There is also a concern that state highway funds would be used for non-state highway uses and that may be a violation of state law,” said Cass. “The NHDOT requests that the SEC pursue other options for delegating that authority.”
In December 2016, 18 of the 31 towns the line would pass through filed a petition with the SEC asking the committee to rule that Eversource lacks the legal right to use town roads without municipal permission.
The SEC dismissed the petition, but said it would consider the question in deciding the Northern Pass case. The committee is expected to issue an oral decision on whether to give the project state approval by the end of February.
The local roads in question - in all, four to five miles - are in Pittsburg, which would see a crossing at Indian Stream; Clarksville and Stewartstown, which would see buried line along Old County Road; and other portions of Stewartstown, which would see buried line along a segment of North Hill Road and the east end of Bear Rock Road.
It is unclear as to how the issue will shake out when Eversource has not approached any towns for permits and approval and the SEC, as a regulatory body, cannot make new law in the event the road matter becomes a legal one.
On Tuesday, Northern Pass spokespersons Martin Murray said the SEC process preempts local authority with respect to siting of transmission lines.
“As part of our application, we have asked the SEC to include all authorizations needed for the use of local roads,” he said.
If Northern Pass is approved, Cass agreed DOT will monitor construction within roadways, such as Routes 302, 16 and 18 in Franconia, Sugar Hill, and Easton.
“Due to the limited resources available to conduct normal operation, the department intends to contract this work to private firms with limited oversight by the department,” said Cass. “The department does not have the resources to monitor the work on municipally maintained local roads, which would require knowledge of local ordinances and municipal operations, which the department does not have.”
Additionally, the department does not believe it should be approving or overseeing construction and making decisions that could impact long-term operations and maintenance on roadways that are under the authority and maintenance responsibilities of others, he said.
Funding is another issue causing uncertainty for Northern Pass, which Eversource bid into the Massachusetts Clean Energy Requests for Proposal. The selected project, which could be announced Jan. 25, would be funded by Massachusetts rate payers.
On Dec. 27, the Granite State Power Link, which is also bid into the Massachusetts RFP, announced it submitted an application for its federal Presidential Permit.
The same day, Eversource issued a press release stating Northern Pass will begin its two-year construction early in the second quarter of 2018 and, compared to its competitors, is the only large transmission project that would achieve Massachusetts’ statutory requirement for carbon emission reductions two years earlier because of its “early in-service date of 2020.”
In April 2017, however, SEC member Patricia Weathersby said Northern Pass is now dependent on the Massachusetts RFP for funding and there is no guarantee it will win.
Murray said Eversource intends to commence construction after the SEC issues its final decision, expected by March 31. He did not say if construction can begin if Northern Pass does not win the Massachusetts RFP and if the SEC decision is appealed.
As towns across the North Country experienced burdens in legal costs fighting Northern Pass, Cass’ letter to the SEC indicates the project has also burdened the DOT.
“The project review and permitting efforts to date have taxed the department’s resources and taken resources away from other department functions,” said Cass. “An extension of the department responsibilities would result in delays to normal department duties …”