$19.5M earmarked for Berlin street, sidewalk snow melting system

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$19.5M earmarked for Berlin street, sidewalk snow melting system

A federal grant announced last week promises to fund construction on a snowmelt system for downtown Berlin’s streets and sidewalks.

Amid growing concern about the use of salt to melt snow in New Hampshire and around the country, the project will be the state’s first municipal snow-melt system, with city officials hoping to save thousands of dollars every year on snow removal and cut down on salt damage to Berlin’s bridges, cars and the Androscoggin River.

The snowmelt project will use excess heat from the Burgess BioPower biomass plant, pumped below downtown streets and sidewalks, to raise the temperatures of the pavement above freezing, and melting ice and snow without chemicals.

Installing the system will require a total re-do of downtown streets and sidewalks, which will be paid for by the grant, including new ramps for wheelchairs and strollers, and even the planting of more threes along the sidewalks. Berlin officials hope the improvements will bring more activity and investment to downtown — much as a sidewalk-widening project in Concord did several years ago.

Berlin has been pursuing the project for more than five years, but finding the money has been an impediment for the cash-strapped city.

The city was denied for an $18.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the fall of 2020, but won a $19.5 million RAISE grant from the department this year. The grant was announced earlier this week.

Last year, Manchester received a $25 million RAISE grant to spur redevelopment of the industrial area between Elm Street and the Merrimack River around Gas Street and the Manchester Transit Authority depot. Both grants were funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021, of which New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was a lead negotiator.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier said in a statement that the funding will also pay to re-do downtown streets and sidewalks — freeing up city and state funds that would have gone to street and sidewalk repair.

If the project is completed, Berlin officials have in the past estimated saving $100,000 every year in snow-removal costs. The city’s budget for salt and sand alone in 2022 is over $200,000.

A similar system in the town of Holland, Mich., was the inspiration for the Berlin proposal, but the idea of using waste heat to melt snow and ice is coming into wider use — particularly amid growing concern about the effects of road salt in water.

New Hampshire was the first state to use road salt to keep ice and snow off the streets in winter, with the first crystals hitting pavement in 1941.

Road salt has been found to present a risk to water — and not just waterways right next to roads.

Snowmelting salt running off roads can create chloride contamination. As of 2020, New Hampshire counted 50 chloride-impacted lakes and streams, with most of the contamination seen in southern New Hampshire towns along Interstate 93 — particularly Derry, Londonderry, Windham and Salem, with .

Chloride at the levels found in New Hampshire’s waterways doesn’t hurt people, even if it can give water an off-putting taste. But it can kill fish, and the plants and organisms fish eat.

A University of Connecticut researcher also found that while some small organisms die when they live in too-salty water, mosquito larvae tend to thrive.

Salt can also corrode the metal that reinforces bridges, overpasses and parking garages, and salt damage to infrastructure and cars has been estimated to cost the country between $16 billion and $19 billion every winter.

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