Editorial: City can’t afford wrong turn on I-93

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Consider this a call to arms. Sometime in the next few months state and federal transportation officials will approve a plan to widen Interstate 93 as it passes through Concord. The decision will determine the face, fate and future of New Hampshire’s capital city. At the moment, Concord’s prospects appear grim.

It has long been the city’s goal to reconnect with its river and expand downtown northward toward Horseshoe Pond. Crossing the Merrimack on Loudon Road is unpleasant for pedestrians and terrifying for cyclists. The bridge replacements and upgrades that will accompany the widening plan could remedy that. But the draft “preferred” plan the state Department of Transportation prepared to submit to federal transportation officials for approval does none of those things. All it will do is speed traffic through the city even faster and create an even bigger barrier between east and west, between downtown and the Merrimack. The plan as it stands should be opposed.

Last month, Concord’s Transportation Policy Advisory Committee submitted a report to the city council that contained this warning: “TPAC believes the point of no return for incorporating Concord’s goals and objectives is fast approaching.” Plans to widen the interstate have been studied and debated for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, more and more communities came to realize that siting superhighways in city centers was a mistake. Running I-93 between downtown and the Merrimack River was a mistake, one that the state and federal government should do all they can to mitigate.

Concord’s legislators have largely been absent from the debate over the road’s fate. It’s time for them to step up and demand that the state’s plan meets as many of the city’s goals as possible. Those goals include shifting the highway westward to make space for a park along the river, relocating railroad tracks to allow for the extension of Storrs Street, the removal of the dilapidated state highway garage buildings and the transfer of the property to the city. The unsightly utility substation should be relocated away from the historic Ralph Pill Building.

Those goals are modest. Many cities have done more. Providence, R.I., largely using federal funds, relocated the interstate that once divided it to the outskirts of the city. Boston tore down its central artery and put some of its freeway underground, which made room for more than 45 public parks and plazas. San Francisco got rid of the Embarcadero, an elevated freeway that marred the view of its bay. Seattle put part of its viaduct underground, allowing neighborhoods to reconnect with its waterfront.

Ideally, I-93 from exits 13 to 14 would be moved across the river. Failing that, it too could be lowered or put underground. But the state’s preferred plan is cheap, efficient and ugly, with eight lanes of asphalt in some stretches.

As important as the project is to the future of the city, only two public meetings have been held over the latest plan. Once the plan is approved by the feds, it will be nearly impossible to change. Speak up now while the public comment period is still open.

City staff will meet with the state’s project manager for the widening plan on May 24. The meeting is scheduled to be held at city hall, a space that doesn’t hold many people. The next meeting should pack the city auditorium. Every elected official and every citizen concerned with the city’s future should attend and speak up. It’s the chance of a lifetime.