This 2001 photo shows the New Hampshire Turnpike (I-95) looking north from the South Road overpass in North Hampton. Expansion during the mid-1970s brought a new four-lane carriageway and a wide grass median. (Photo by Alexander Svirsky, granitehighways.com.)
EARLY PLANS FOR A SEACOAST BYPASS: The first plan for a highway bypass along the New Hampshire Seacoast region was developed as early as 1933. At that time, traffic was beginning to choke two-lane US 1 (Lafayette Road) and two-lane US 1 NH 1A (Ocean Boulevard) through the towns of Seabrook, Hampton, Rye, and Portsmouth. Congestion was particularly acute during the summer tourism and winter holiday seasons.
Newspaper reports circulated that the state wanted to route the highway through the marshes west of the town centers, effectively removing most traffic between Massachusetts and Maine from local roads. One local newspaper, The Hampton Union, commented in its editorial pages that the loss of traffic would cut local business by 30 percent, and offered a compromise solution of widening the existing US 1 to four (or even six) lanes. Businesses in the affected towns promptly signed the petition against the western bypass, and offered their own compromise solution of constructing a new section of NH 1A through Hampton west of Ashworth Avenue.
In 1940, the state opened a new US 1 Bypass to the north and west of downtown Portsmouth. The four-lane route, which provides grade separation and partial access control, was part of the Maine-New Hampshire (Lift) Bridge construction. The onset of World War II temporarily shelved plans for additional highways.
THE FIGHT FOR THE STATE'S FIRST MODERN TURNPIKE: At the end of the war, the state reactivated its plans for the seacoast bypass. Inspired by the success of the Maine Turnpike, the first section of which opened to traffic in 1947, the State Legislature proposed a New Hampshire Turnpike Authority. The new agency would have the authority to issue bonds and charge tolls, something that the anti-bypass Hampton Union believed was "directly contradictory to the principle of free use of roads for which New Hampshire has stood for generations."
Local businesses renewed their fight against the turnpike, and estimated that the construction of the highway (and the concomitant loss of traffic on US 1) would result in the loss of $80,000 per year in gasoline taxes, and $500,000 per year in lost wages. They also protested the limited number of exits on the proposed turnpike. Area residents joined the fight, fearing that they might not get compensated fairly for their properties. Despite heated opposition at public hearings, the State Legislature passed a $7.5 million toll road bill on the last day of the 1947 legislative session. The governor signed the bill into law in early 1948.
BUILDING THE TURNPIKE: The 14-mile-long, four-lane turnpike, which was to be the first superhighway in the state, was to extend from the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border north to the Portsmouth traffic circle. A connection to the US 1 Bypass directed motorists to the southern terminus of the Maine Turnpike via the Maine-New Hampshire (Lift) Bridge. Reflecting pre-Interstate standards, the original turnpike featured grade separation and wide separation of interchanges, but limited shoulders and a simple steel median guardrail were among the turnpike's many shortcomings. A six-lane mainline toll plaza and separate exit tolls were built in Hampton. The turnpike was named a "Blue Star Memorial Highway" in honor of the state's World War II dead.
Right-of-way acquisition began in July 1948. The state sold a number of houses and other properties at auction; it sold a nine-room house in North Hampton for $137. Construction of the actual turnpike began in November of that year.
As construction progressed through the summer of 1949, The Hampton Union was back on its anti-turnpike crusade, telling readers that the southern terminus of the highway was in the middle of nowhere, and that there would be no connecting highway in Massachusetts for years to come. Indeed, it did take several more years for Massachusetts to build its highway connection, but the commonwealth did construct a local road (New Toll Road) to link the New Hampshire Turnpike with US 1.
Later that summer, progress on the turnpike was threatened when F.E. Everett, the commissioner of the Turnpike Authority, and chief engineer Daniel Dickenson resigned following an investigation that the state overpaid $103,000 in design work to Charles H. Morse, a former business partner of Dickenson. Construction proceeded despite this setback.
The $7.5 million New Hampshire Turnpike opened to traffic on June 24, 1950. Motorists were charged 15 cents for the mainline toll, and 10 cents for the Hampton exit (EXIT 2) toll. In the true spirit of Yankee thriftiness, officials at the Turnpike Authority returned more than $400,000 in unneeded funds after the road opened.
This 1950 photo shows the early days of the New Hampshire Turnpike (before it was known as I-95) at the Hampton toll plaza. When the NHDOT doubled turnpike capacity during the 1970's, it also reconstructed the Hampton toll plaza. (Photo by John M. Holman, from the Lane Memorial Library-Hampton archives.)
A SMASHING SUCCESS: The New Hampshire Turnpike was built for an anticipated 1960 design capacity of 2,400 vehicles per day (AADT). Traffic volume reached this milestone only four years after the turnpike opened, and by 1960, when the I-95 designation was formally given to the New Hampshire Turnpike, the highway handled an average of 12,000 vehicles per day. The growth in traffic volume corresponded to the Seacoast region's evolution from a sparsely populated summer tourist community to a more populous, year-round suburban community.
When the turnpike opened, traffic on US 1 dipped initially, but was back to pre-opening levels within a decade. Motorists soon took to alternative routes to avoid congestion on I-95, and this in turn led to increasing traffic on US 1 and NH 1A. By 1963, the Seacoast Regional Development Association complained to state officials that the traffic situation on US 1 was endangering the local economy.
THE NEED FOR EXPANSION: As the 1970s began, the New Hampshire Turnpike carried approximately 25,000 vehicles on the average weekday, and as much as 55,000 vehicles per day on holiday weekends. Recently completed highways in Massachusetts, and planned expansion at the southern end of the Maine Turnpike created the potential for a bottleneck among the New Hampshire Turnpike.
In 1971, following several years of study, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) determined that the turnpike required a doubling of capacity from four to eight lanes:
Make improvements to that portion of the eastern New Hampshire Turnpike known as the Blue Star Memorial Highway, including, but not limited to, the addition of two traffic lanes in each directionů and the reconstruction of the toll facilities in the town of Hampton.
Work began promptly on a new Piscataqua River crossing to relieve the overloaded Maine-New Hampshire (Lift) Bridge. The new six-lane bridge, which featured a main steel continuous through-truss span, opened to traffic in November 1972. A new toll-free section of I-95 constructed by the NHDOT connected the toll section to the new Piscataqua River Bridge. Motorists bound for Maine no longer had to negotiate the treacherous Portsmouth traffic circle.
In 1973, workers moved south of Portsmouth to construct the expansion of the existing turnpike. To construct the second carriageway, the state acquired 271 properties along the proposed route. The new four-lane carriageways were flanked by 12-foot-wide shoulders, and separated by a wide grassy median. New bridges were constructed over I-95, several interchange ramps were relocated, and the Hampton toll plaza was reconstructed. The expanded New Hampshire Turnpike opened to traffic in 1976.
THE TURNPIKE TODAY: According to the NHDOT, the New Hampshire Turnpike carries approximately 55,000 vehicles each day (AADT), a figure that could nearly double on summer weekends. The turnpike received its one billionth vehicle in 1989, and only nine years later received its two billionth vehicle; it since has received its three billion vehicle. The speed limit on the turnpike has been 65 MPH since 1987.
In the summers of 2003 and 2004, the NHDOT experimented with one-way tolls in the northbound direction at the Hampton toll plaza, leaving the southbound direction toll-free. There were ten northbound lanes (where a double toll of $2 was paid) and four southbound lanes (where traffic passed through at 20 MPH) during the experiment. Governor Craig Benson favored making the one-way tolls permanent, but local officials opposed the plan because they fear that congestion would worsen along northbound US 1. Amid annualized net losses of $180,000 and northbound traffic jams that stretched back into Massachusetts on I-95 and I-495, the NHDOT ceased the one-way roll experiment.
In the meantime, the NHDOT converted the Hampton toll plaza to the EZ-Pass electronic toll collection system by the summer of 2005. In a separate project, the NHDOT widened ramps and rebuilt bridges at EXIT 2 (NH 101 Expressway), which is adjacent to the Hampton toll plaza. The turnpike stopped collecting tokens at the end of 2005.
Just prior to the 2010 Memorial Day weekend rush, the NHDOT opened the state's first open-road toll lanes at the Hampton toll plaza. The $18 million project reconfigured the toll plaza with two highway-speed (65 MPH) EZ-Pass lanes and six traditional cash / EZ-Pass lanes in each direction.
UNUSUAL SERVICE AREAS: In most states, turnpike service areas feature gasoline stations, restaurants and other related services. This is not the case in New Hampshire: the northbound and southbound service areas in Seabrook are actually liquor stores are operated by the State Liquor Authority.
This 2006 photo shows the northbound New Hampshire Turnpike (I-95) at EXIT 4 (NH 16 and US 4 / Spaulding Turnpike) and EXIT 5 (US 1 Bypass; right exit) in Portsmouth. Before the Piscataqua River Bridge was completed in 1972, the Portsmouth traffic circle -- which this interchange bypasses -- served as the northern terminus of the turnpike. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
SOURCES: "Turnpike With Something Added" by Paul J. C. Friedlander, The New York Times (5/28/1950); "Hampton: A Century of Town and Beach (1888-1988)" by Peter Evans Randall, Town of Hampton (1989); "I-95 Toll Experiment Gives Free Ride One Way," The Exeter News-Letter (8/22/2003); "One-Way Tolls a Test of Patience" by Elizabeth Dinan, The Hampton Union (8/08/2004); "Two Ways To View I-95 Tolls" by Jerry Miller, The Manchester Union-Leader (9/05/2004); "NH Will Plug Into Electronic Tolls" by Electronic Tolls" by Christine McConville, The Boston Globe (1/09/2005); "Pay NH Your Toll, Respects" by Brian McGrory, The Boston Globe (6/11/2010); New Hampshire Department of Transportation; Lane Memorial Library; Josh Copeland; Dan Moraseski; Mike Moroney; C.C. Slater; Alexander Svirsky.
I-95 shield by Ralph Herman. New Hampshire Turnpike shield by Josh Copeland. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.