Editorial: Reconstructing Old Rail Passage Is Smart

  • Members of the Lebanon City Council and of the public tour a railroad tunnel in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. The City Council is considering plans to either fill in the tunnel or convert it into a path for bikers and pedestrians. Both plans are estimated to cost around $2 million. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. August Frank

Published: 9/27/2018 10:09:32 PM
Modified: 9/28/2018 9:46:33 AM

When the Lebanon City Council last December earmarked $2 million in the 2018 budget in anticipation of finally figuring out what to do with the old rail tunnel that runs under the downtown mall, a few may have felt the council was pouring perfectly good taxpayer money into a 300-foot-long hole in the ground.

That’s one way to look at it, we suppose. Our view, however, is that the council made a good call, and its unanimous approval last week of a project to reconstruct and reopen the tunnel — not the least expensive option, but not the most expensive, either — promises to be a boon for pedestrians and cyclists and to give the city plenty of bang for its bucks.

As staff writer Tim Camerato reported, the council OK’d plans to replace the tunnel’s crumbling concrete deck, install new interior stairs and add a glass opening on the eastern end of the tunnel for natural light and ventilation. Interior lights and security cameras also would be part of the project, which is estimated to cost $2.4 million and could be completed in a single construction season. The other options before the council included a plan that would have filled in the tunnel for as little as $1 million, and a more ambitious proposal that would have filled in the tunnel and created a pathway along the Mascoma River at a cost of more than $4 million.

The council rightly balked at the cost, and potential permitting complications, of the river path proposal. But the city certainly should continue looking at how to make the best use of its waterways. Time and cost constraints also prompted the council to drop from the tunnel project both a wheelchair lift and an outdoor ramp to serve those with limited mobility. We are always in favor of more and better accessibility, and hope the city will monitor use of the refurbished tunnel with an eye to ensuring that it can be used and enjoyed by everyone.

But time is of the essence, and there’s no argument that something needs to be done — and now — with the tunnel, which was closed in 2014 when engineers determined it to be in “poor to very poor condition.” Its concrete ceiling was falling apart and cracks were growing in the city-owned parking lot above it, leading to the roping off of about 20 parking spots. Shady use also was being made of the dank and litter-strewn space, police said, including illegal burning and public sex.

The 2014 closing of the dilapidated tunnel, which runs from the parking lot behind River Valley Community College under Hanover Street to an area near Route 4, wasn’t the end of the process by any means. In fact, it sparked the city’s downtown “visioning” effort which, when it was completed in 2016, called for an ambitious, 10- to 15-year, multimillion-dollar remaking of the city’s downtown to help encourage development, improve traffic flow and safety, and create a more pedestrian-friendly marketplace.

There’s plenty of discussion still to be had about remaking downtown, especially when it comes to parking and housing, but fixing the tunnel has broad backing. In addition to being the subject of several public forums and online surveys, the various proposals have been reviewed by four city committees: the Planning Board, the Pedestrian and Bicyclist Advisory Committee, the Economic Vitality Exchange Committee and the Arts and Culture Task Force. The general consensus, according to the city manager’s office, was to refurbish and reopen the tunnel.

Central to the public and official support for restoring the tunnel is the key role it will play in the ongoing development of the Mascoma River Greenway, a multi-purpose path that now runs for about 2½ miles along the former Boston & Maine railway between downtown and the Miracle Mile, roughly parallel to Route 4. When it is complete, the Greenway will provide walkers, runners, cyclists and others with a 4-mile link between downtown Lebanon and the West Lebanon commercial district that not only offers a beautiful natural setting but, importantly, doesn’t require them to use the city’s busy streets, a key principle in the city’s master plan. Restoring the tunnel also will allow the Greenway to connect safely to the Northern Rail Trail, a 58-mile-long recreation path that now runs from a spot near the Carter Community Building Association campus to Boscawen, N.H.

Other benefits of refurbishing the tunnel — aside from eliminating an eyesore and getting those lost parking spaces back — include adapting and reusing a piece of the city’s history and possibly providing a cool venue for the display of public art, which is already one of the creative and attractive features of the Mascoma River Greenway and a focus of the city’s new Arts and Culture Task Force.

This is the best kind of tunnel vision.

Valley News

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