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Never Too Late to Celebrate

  • Standing in the underpass linking Route 12A shopping plazas with workers and others behind him, New Hampshire Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement speaks during a gathering yesterday to celebrate the completion of the Interstate 89 Exit 20 project in West Lebanon. Bill Boynton of the DOT is taking a photograph at left. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Standing in the underpass linking Route 12A shopping plazas with workers and others behind him, New Hampshire Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement speaks during a gathering yesterday to celebrate the completion of the Interstate 89 Exit 20 project in West Lebanon. Bill Boynton of the DOT is taking a photograph at left. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Executive Councilor Ray Burton speaks to the crowd gathered with Lebanon city officials  to celebrate the completion of the Exit 20 project, they were in one of the connector tunnels between the plazas. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Executive Councilor Ray Burton speaks to the crowd gathered with Lebanon city officials to celebrate the completion of the Exit 20 project, they were in one of the connector tunnels between the plazas. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lebanon City Councilor Karen Liot Hill  and Executive Councilor Ray Burton speak after a ribbon cutting  to celebrate the completion of the Exit 20 project in West Lebanon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Lebanon City Councilor Karen Liot Hill and Executive Councilor Ray Burton speak after a ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of the Exit 20 project in West Lebanon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Standing in the underpass linking Route 12A shopping plazas with workers and others behind him, New Hampshire Department of Transportation Commissioner Chris Clement speaks during a gathering yesterday to celebrate the completion of the Interstate 89 Exit 20 project in West Lebanon. Bill Boynton of the DOT is taking a photograph at left. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Executive Councilor Ray Burton speaks to the crowd gathered with Lebanon city officials  to celebrate the completion of the Exit 20 project, they were in one of the connector tunnels between the plazas. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Lebanon City Councilor Karen Liot Hill  and Executive Councilor Ray Burton speak after a ribbon cutting  to celebrate the completion of the Exit 20 project in West Lebanon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

West Lebanon — With a red and white “Burton for Certain” baseball cap perched atop his head, Executive Councilor Ray Burton, R-Bath, a mainstay in North Country politics for more than a generation, stood in the middle of the Route 12A underpass yesterday and used a pair of scissors to slice through a red ribbon.

“It’s open,” he said, looking up with a smile as his small declaration was met with applause by the handful of public officials in attendance.

In fact, the underpass connecting the Kmart and Upper Valley shopping plazas opened to traffic during last year’s holiday shopping season. About 30 people, many representing all levels of government, gathered beneath Interstate 89 yesterday, some six months later, to officially celebrate its construction, which was conceived decades ago but had stalled at the planning stage since the mid-1990s.

The $26 million project funded entirely by 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known colloquially as the stimulus. Workers from Bow-based Audley Construction broke ground in 2010, reshaping I-89’s Exit 20 interchange, including raising the bridges over Route 12A and widening 12A itself.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of the project, though, was the underpass, meant to alleviate traffic by allowing easy travel between shopping centers without having to venture back on to 12A.

As it turned out, yesterday was a good day to be under an underpass, which protected the crowd from a soft but steady rain.

It was a special day for Burton, too, as the Bath Republican has long advocated the underpass’s benefits and fought for transportation funding in Grafton County and the North Country for years.

He also praised the city for playing a “great part” in the construction. Several city officials were in attendance and spoke during the event, including City Manager Greg Lewis and city councilors.

“It was one of these projects that you just knew that something needed to be done, because of the growth up and down the Connecticut Valley on both sides,” Burton said. “And so far, people are very, very happy with it. It’s working, it’s safe,” he said, affirming that he’s driven through the underpass a few times himself while running errands.

The underpass was blocked during the 45-minute event as speakers straddled the double-yellow line while taking turns at a small, portable podium. After Burton cut the red ribbon, other officials — including Chris Clement, the state transportation commissioner — used the same scissors to cut away smaller sections, handing them out to those in attendance.

State Rep. Patricia Higgins, D-Hanover, who is on the House public works committee and is a member of the Upper Valley Transportation Management Association Steering Committee, let out a small exclamation of excitement as she accepted one.

Before the underpass was built, she said, she would avoid West Lebanon during holiday shopping season “because it was just too crowded.”

Representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, U.S. Sen Kelly Ayotte and Congresswoman Ann Kuster also read prepared statements, some of them commenting on how the underpass has benefited them personally.

“This is where my mom would bring me for back-to-school shopping,” said Simon Thomson, who grew up in Orford and later read a statement on Ayotte’s behalf. “And I have to tell you, this would have been extremely, extremely helpful way back then, but it’s here now.”

The 73-year-old Burton — who has the longest running tenure on New Hampshire’s Executive Council in state history, serving continuously since 1981 — announced in February that he had been diagnosed with a curable form of kidney cancer. After a brief stay in the hospital, his doctor put him on a simple regimen — no medications, he said, but if you need a nap, take one — and yesterday, Burton said his health is “back to 100 percent.”

Higgins said she felt honored to be seated next to Burton at a recent Good Roads Association dinner, and felt he never missed a beat since February.

Calling the diagnosis a “setback,” she said his health has “not in the least affected his capabilities. ... We’re delighted that he’s up and about doing the things he does so well, which is bring people together.”

Burton said the diagnosis reminded him he’s “no spring chicken,” he said, but otherwise, his schedule, which takes him from Claremont to the Canadian border, has picked back up.

His tour of transportation projects continued into yesterday afternoon, when he planned to visit I-89 bridges over Hardy Hill Road and Route 120, where further projects are planned. And he has no plans of retiring anytime soon, he said.

“I plan to run in 2014, ’16, ’18,” he said.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.