Growing Route 120 Corridor Has a Life of Its Own
After-work commuters wait for the light to change at the intersection of Route 120 and Lahaye Drive in 2007.
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Traffic stops for the light at the intersection of Route 120 and Etna Road in Lebanon after work in October 2010.
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Lebanon — City officials last week gave a preliminary green light to the second phase of the proposed mixed-use Altaria development that would add about 775 cars a day to an already congested Route 120 between Lebanon and Hanover.
The approval represents a careful line that the Lebanon Planning Board has walked in recent years in its effort to manage the growth of the Route 120 corridor, an increasingly popular landing strip for developers building office and apartment complexes serving workers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the Centerra office park.
Lebanon’s Planning and Zoning Director Andrew Gast-Bray described the transportation issues facing Route 120 as the region’s most pressing traffic challenge, but he said it is difficult for the city’s Planning Board to identify the point at which traffic would become burdensome and force growth in the corridor to halt. He added that any line drawn in the sand could be challenged by developers on legal grounds.
“How (does the Planning Board) all of the sudden say ‘No?’ ” Gast-Bray said. “They know they need to start standing up and saying no, but they’re in sort of an awkward situation.”
In a Planning Board meeting last Tuesday, City Councilor Nicole Cormen cast the lone dissenting vote against preliminary approval for the second phase of Altaria business park. The project would add a 120-unit hotel, more than 300,000 square feet of new office and research space, 42,000-square-feet of retail space, and up to 160 residential condominiums just south of the Centerra complex on Route 120.
Cormen, who is the City Council representative on the Planning Board, told the Valley News that she voted against the approval because traffic issues have not yet been resolved on the corridor. She also said the Planning Board has found itself operating in a “paradox.” The problem, she said, is that because other big projects have already been approved, it’s hard to prove that yet another would create the tipping point.
“If your roadway is failing because you keep approving stuff, your grounds for turning something down become fairly difficult to uphold,” said Cormen. “On the other hand, I also think there’s a question of where you draw the line.”
Nate Miller, senior planner at the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, said that traffic jams at Exit 18 off Interstate 89 have become an urgent safety issue, as lines of cars trying to get onto Route 120 during rush hour have begun to back up into the travel lanes of the highway.
“That’s what creates the gray hairs among a lot of the people that are involved in these discussions,” said Miller.
Peter Knights, the developer for the Altaria complex, said that in his estimation, traffic moves “quite well” on Route 120.
“From all the traffic studies that are up, the capacity of Route 120 is adequate for development as it’s projected out over the next several years, and certainly adequate for the Altaria development,” he said.
A 2009 New Hampshire Department of Transportation traffic study found that approximately 2,180 vehicles pass by the future Altaria site on Route 120 during the peak morning commute hour, and 2,220 pass through during the afternoon peak commute hour. And according to 2010 DOT data, about 30,000 vehicles travel daily through the Heater Road intersection on Route 120.
Gast-Bray has said the Route 120 corridor near DHMC is given a “level of service F” by the DOT, meaning it is acceptable but congested.
In its preliminary approval of Altaria’s second phase, the Planning Board stipulated that the developers contribute $150,000 toward traffic mitigation, but did not specify what the funds will pay for — that will be finalized at a Dec. 10 meeting.
Cormen said that any traffic solution to the Route 120 corridor would require cooperation among state, regional, and municipal officials, as well as the affected major employers and developers.
City officials have credited DHMC with being proactive in its efforts to help ease traffic problems in the area, and Gail Dahlstrom, the DHMC vice president of facilities management, echoed Cormen’s view that the problem requires a multi-party response.
“We’ve not been able as a region to do that successfully yet,” she said. “There have been a few fits and starts, but we haven’t figured out how to pull together at the right time, finance it, think strategically about it, and that’s unfortunate.”
More Development in Pipeline
According to the 2009 traffic study, the first phase of the Altaria development — which would include the hotel, 34 residential units, and about 130,000 square feet office and retail space — would add about 300 cars to the corridor daily during peak commuting hours. That phase was approved last year, but the building permit has not yet been issued for the hotel, which is anticipated to be the first structure in the project to go up.
Both phases of Altaria combined, to be built out over the next roughly 15 years, would add an estimated 775 cars during peak commuting hours.
That comes on top of other projects in the area. Just across Route 120 from Altaria, Dartmouth-Hitchcock is seeking approval for a new 162,974 square foot research facility, as well as a parking lot expansion that would add 287 spaces. To ease traffic created by the research facility building, Dartmouth-Hitchcock has offered to pay the $114,000 cost to install an advanced video-based traffic signal at the Exit 18 interchange.
To the south, another major Upper Valley employer — Hypertherm — is in the process constructing a 156,000 square foot facility on Heater Road.
And to the north, Marc Miclowsky — the owner of Jesse’s Steak, Seafood and Tavern — is attempting to build a 41,000 square foot three-story medical office building behind the well-known steakhouse.
The city of Lebanon has also been overseeing two other major developments, the River Park complex off Route 10 in West Lebanon and the Iron Horse Park complex in between Route 12A and Route 4.
Cormen said that while those projects are geographically distinct from the Route 120 corridor, they have been on a similar development timeline as Altaria, and the three of them have hit the Planning Board all at once.
“Those three developments combined basically increased our non-residential square footage by a third,” said Cormen. “That’s really just unfathomable.”
Down the Road
Miller, the Upper Valley planner , said that the last major upgrade for Route 120, a widening near the road to DHMC, was completed in 2005 and was partially funded by Dartmouth-Hitchcock. He added that there is no money currently set aside for Route 120 road improvement in the state’s 10-year plan for roadway projects.
“At least for the next two years, and probably beyond the next two years, there’s no money to deal with that,” he said. “And I think there’s fairly broad recognition that is an issue.”
The state DOT, which is responsible for the maintenance of Route 120, had intended to conduct an engineering study to ascertain what roadway improvements would be required. The study was to be funded by Route 120 developers — including Altaria — but the state recently called it off, citing unhappiness over the rate at which it was receiving the funds.
DOT spokesman William Bonyton said the department will instead conduct a study based out of its District 2 offices in Enfield, which will look to focus on the Exit 18 interchange as well as the Heater Road intersection.
He could not provide a timeline for when improvements might take place.
“They’re well aware that it’s a heavily-traveled corridor, and there’s a certain need to get something defined in a reasonable amount of time,” said Boynton.
Miller said that if the city and state officials do not reach a consensus on which improvements they will choose to target for state funding by mid-March, they will be forced to wait another two years to even be considered for inclusion on the back-end the state’s 10-year roadwork to-do list.
Describing himself as hopeful that a consensus could be reached, Miller said that the improvements could likely come as a small package that would include adding pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
Gast-Bray said he spends more time on Route 120 traffic issues than any other roadway, but emphasized that the problem is regional, and can only be solved using a regional approach.
“Even if we put thumbscrews to everybody in Lebanon, we’re not going to fix the problem on (Route) 120,” Gast-Bray said. “There’s nothing we can do, it’s a regional issue.”
He said that now that the issue has become regional, Lebanon officials need to focus on collaborating with Hanover officials, as well as the major employers and regional planners in the Upper Valley.
Gast-Bray emphasized a smart-growth approach that would encourage people to park once during the course of their day and use bike-shares and pedestrian walkways to travel during work hours.
He said it was too late to restrict the development of the corridor, so the challenge would now have to shift to managing transportation habits as people travel on Route 120.
“We’ve already passed that one line in the sand, so we now have to draw another line that is meaningful, and that one we’re going to have to stick behind,” he said. “We’re going to have to fight that fight.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.