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Lebanon City Council Votes to Repair Closed Tunnel

  • Members of the Lebanon City Council and of the public stand above the railroad tunnel entrance between River Valley Community College and Ledyard Charter School during a tour of the tunnel in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2018

Lebanon — The old rail tunnel that runs under the Lebanon Mall could be open as a bicycle and pedestrian path by this time next year, after the City Council voted on Wednesday to repair the structure.

Councilors voted unanimously to approve plans that would stabilize the tunnel and cut a skylight into its ceiling for additional light. Engineers estimate the project could cost $2.4 million and be completed in a single building season.

“I’m now pretty convinced that reconstruction of the tunnel in place is probably the best thing to do,” Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara said. “I think the tunnel replacement with some natural light is a good thing.”

The plans approved by the City Council call for a full replacement of the tunnel’s concrete deck, with a glass-encased opening on the east end to provide light, fresh air and a visual connection to the mall above.

The city also is proposing interior lights and video cameras that could be used to deter crime, and there’s talks to create murals and public art in the renovated space.

Prior to the tunnel’s closing, it was a site known for illicit activities, including arson, graffiti and sex, according to Lebanon police.

City officials closed the tunnel, which runs for about 300 feet from the parking lot behind River Valley Community College to an area near Route 4, more than four years ago, after engineers found its structure was in “poor to very poor condition.”

Chunks of cement were reported to be falling from its ceiling and expanding cracks were seen in the pavement above shortly before the closing. The closing also resulted in about 20 parking spaces near the pedestrian mall being cordoned off.

Since then, the city has commissioned several studies and reports to help determine a long-term plan forward. While filling in the tunnel likely would be the cheapest fix at $1 million to $2 million, there’s overwhelming support to reopen it as a connection on the Mascoma River Greenway, a 4-mile extension of the Northern Rail Trail from downtown to West Lebanon.

The City Council in July expressed support to complete rail trail, and chose to further explore three plans that could connect the two ends. Two of the proposals would reopen the tunnel at a cost estimated between $2.21 million and $2.29 million. A third option would have filled in the tunnel and created a river walk for about $3.5 million.

Some officials, however, worried a river walk could be difficult to keep clear, especially in the winter months. They also worried it could be difficult to obtain permitting to build along the Mascoma River.

While councilors chose to reopen the tunnel, they also expressed hope that a river walk could someday be added to the trail.

A downtown focus on the river likely would spur economic development and add scenery to the community, Councilor Karen Liot Hill said.

“I think that featuring the river is maybe the most important thing we can do to feature Lebanon and West Lebanon,” she said.

Four city committees — the Planning Board, Pedestrian and Bicyclist Advisory Committee, Economic Vitality Exchange Committee, and the Arts and Culture Task Force — reviewed the proposals the tunnel proposals ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. The city also held a public forum on the matter and took a tour of the tunnel last week.

“All reviews have been completed and the general consensus of all groups is to proceed with (reopening the tunnel),” the City Manager’s Office said in a memo to the City Council.

Officials on Wednesday also discussed potentially adding to the tunnel by building an interior staircase to the Lebanon Mall, a wheelchair lift or an outdoor staircase with a handicap ramp.

A new wheelchair lift could cost $200,000, while an outdoor ramp and renovated stairs is possible with a $225,000 budget, engineers told the Council. New interior stairs, which already are planned for the site, cost under $100,000, they said.

But the City Council ultimately decided to forgo the outdoor ramp or lift, saying they cannot afford the time and money needed for such improvements.

“I want to do the basic, core things that we need to do for the community,” Mayor Sue Prentiss said. “We’re just going to keep having the same discussion. The time is now, fix the tunnel.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com.