Editorial: The Opened Road

The holiday gift to Upper Valley motorists this year was on the expensive side — a bit more than $20 million — and was, according to unofficial early reports, a big hit. The upgrade to West Lebanon’s Route 12A was for the most part complete in time for the annual onslaught of shoppers, and while the commercial strip still has its challenging moments, the level of dysfunction has noticeably decreased.

That shouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering the amount of work that’s been done. The road itself was widened, on-ramps and exits to and from Interstate 89 were expanded, traffic lights were timed, a new connection between shopping plazas was opened and turning lanes were added. The net effect of those changes couldn’t help but decongest 12A. The question was: How much?

Considerably, judging by the testimony of motorists and Lebanon police interviewed by staff writer Ben Conarck during the height of the shopping season. Periods of near-complete gridlock seem to be a thing of the past. And Peter Kehoe, project administrator for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, says that traffic flow should improve further when the timing of the signal at the Kmart plaza intersection is tweaked and as more people become accustomed to navigating the altered road system, including taking advantage of the new inter-plaza link under Interstate 89.

The next question, of course, is: For how long?

Road improvement projects are notoriously self-defeating. When widening and other changes work as they’re supposed to, the unclogged road becomes a more inviting place to drive, attracting additional motorists until it becomes snarled again. Add to that Route 12A’s continuing attraction to retailers and their ability to squeeze in new projects or redevelop old spaces, and it seems more than likely that the Era of Easy Riding on 12A is going to be short-lived. Indeed, even before work got under way nearly three years ago, highway planners had warned that the road would be near capacity by the time the improvement work was completed.

But even if Route 12A’s intersections and its drivers’ patience soon start to regularly fail, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the $20.3 million spent on the project was wasted. It was never entirely clear that the ever-so-brief improvement in traffic flow delivered by the project warranted the money spent on it or the disruption it caused, particularly to those businesses that moved or closed after losing land to the road-widening. But the old Route 12A wasn’t simply an unpleasant place to drive; it was also an unsafe one, particularly under the overpasses where 12A and interstate traffic met, occasionally on violent terms. If the number of tow trucks and, more importantly, ambulances dispatched to that stretch of road is significantly and permanently reduced, the investment will be judged a good one.

Route 12A doesn’t provide passage exclusively to drivers eager to hit the shopping plazas, of course. It is also used by commuters — those who work along Route 12A or in the business park near the airport, and by those who live south of the commercial strip and work somewhere north of it. During a recent editorial board interview, City Councilor Nicole Cormen offered the interesting observation that the Route 12A situation was a matter of much less importance to people who live in Lebanon than it is to nonresidents, if only because city residents know the strip well enough that they can time their shopping to minimize aggravation.

It’s not completely irrelevant, of course: Some of the commuters who travel on the road live in the city, Lebanon residents still make landfill runs and a more functional Route 12A would presumably put less demand on city services. In any case, just about everybody who lives in the Upper Valley is forced to use the road at some point. To the extent that they can now do so more safely, this gift is appreciated.