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Editorial: Route 120 Surrender

For 20 years at least, politicians and planners alike have been saying that while it was too late to do much about traffic congestion on Route 12A in West Lebanon, it was essential that the planning disaster that is the shopping strip not be replicated on the Route 120 corridor. There’s a sad bit of irony, then, in the fact that just as the recently completed $20.3 million reconstruction of the Exit 20 interchange has dramatically improved traffic flow on 12A — for how long is anyone’s guess — Lebanon officials are waving the white flag when it comes to controlling growth along Route 120.

It is too late to restrict development of the corridor, and attention now has to be shifted to managing the traffic problem, Andrew Gast-Bray, the city’s new planning and zoning director, told staff writer Ben Conarck for a story that appeared in the Sunday Valley News last week. “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.”

These comments came in the context of a vote earlier this month by the Planning Board giving preliminary approval to the second phase of the Altaria business park, just south of Centerra. All told, the development will include a 120-unit hotel, more than 300,000 square feet of new office and research space, 42,000 square feet of retail space and as many as 160 condominiums. In other words, it’s big, and when it’s built out in 15 years, it would add about 775 car trips a day to Route 120, where rush hour traffic jams are already backing traffic up onto the Interstate 89 travel lanes at Exit 18. And that’s only one of several major projects planned for the corridor, which is already home to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center campus.

Why not just say no? Easier said than done, according to City Councilor Nicole Cormen, the council’s representative on the Planning Board who was the sole member to vote against preliminary approval for Altaria’s second phase. Cormen describes the Planning Board as being caught in a paradox: Because a number of big projects have already been approved, it’s hard to demonstrate that approving another would tip the traffic balance into dysfunction.

“If your roadway is failing because you keep approving stuff, your grounds for turning something down become fairly difficult to uphold,” Cormen said. “On the other hand, I think there’s a question of where you draw the line.”

We’d guess that a good many residents of the city think that the tipping point was reached quite a while ago, while developers are quite sure that that moment is still distant — long after their own project is finished and lucratively leased. And it occurs to us that no one ever knows where to draw a line until that line has been drawn.

Admittedly, the March of Progress is a hard thing to slow down when a city is as attractive to developers as Lebanon evidently is, but it does appear that the planning tools available to the city to maintain control over its own destiny were inadequate to the task. At least nobody can say that they didn’t see it coming.