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Editorial: Beautify the Strip

“Ugliness is so grim,” Lady Bird Johnson once remarked. “A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.” The former first lady, seeing loveliness in the simplicity of wildflowers, spring bulbs and park benches, launched an energetic campaign to beautify America’s highways, a campaign that became her singular legacy.

Lady Bird’s words came to mind as we read staff writer Warren Johnston’s report on Route 12A in the Sunday Valley News. More than a year since completion of major construction intended to ease congestion along West Lebanon’s commercial strip, traffic appears to be moving more smoothly, but ugliness remains. The road looks pretty much the same as it always did — except for redesigned access ramps, new turn lanes and an underpass allowing drivers to travel between the Kmart Plaza and Upper Valley Plaza.

Of course, no one really expected the three-year, $20 million project to beautify the surroundings. The purpose was to alter traffic patterns so motorists wouldn’t get stuck behind left-turning vehicles, or just plain stuck, as often happened during peak hours. The re-engineering has helped considerably, according to Lebanon police. Some merchants and retail managers also observe an improvement. Others, however, aren’t so sure the work accomplished much. “I still see a lot of backup of traffic, and I’m still hearing complaints,” Peggy Howard, owner of Mouse Menagerie in the North Country Plaza, told Johnston.

According to a state traffic study, fewer vehicles traveled along Route 12A in 2013 than the last time a study was done, in 2007. Officials say various factors could have affected the traffic count, including an up-tick in the use of public transit and the new underpass, which allows motorists to circumvent 12A. In other words, there might have been fewer vehicles last year but not necessarily fewer shoppers. Whatever the implications of the traffic study, however, some retailers assume that consumers continue to associate 12A with gridlock and are staying away.

This is where Lady Bird comes in. Our hunch is that ugliness, not just long memories of long lines of traffic, may have something to do with the fact that some people try to avoid Route 12A. If that’s the case, then all that construction work was a lost opportunity to make the environment more aesthetically pleasing. Take, for example, the median strip dividing north- and southbound traffic near the interchange with I-89. It’s a concrete ribbon that could have been planted with trees or shrubs, lending color and interest to an otherwise dull palette. The banks and berms along the access ramps could have been beds for spring bulbs and ground cover. The curbs and deserted sidewalks could have used some plane trees. In short, we hold with Lady Bird, who believed that “masses of flowers where masses pass,” as she once put it, have the power to transform the asphalt jungle.

Yes, it will take a lot more than shrubbery to beautify Route 12A. Eventually the outdated plazas will have to be rebuilt, and if developers are smart they will bring storefronts closer to the road and direct parking underground. In time, the city might come to insist on plantings and greenswards and wake up to the fact that the lovely scenery along the Connecticut and Mascoma rivers would make an awfully nice park, a place for shoppers to picnic or find repose. In the meantime, though, couldn’t someone just plant some bulbs?