Manchester needs a transportation plan for the 21st century

Forty years ago, traffic planners envisioned replacing now-vibrant neighborhoods with massive highway overpasses in Boston – photo from Cambridge Historical Society

This November marks forty years since Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent cancelled all highway projects, notably the massive “Inner Belt,” within the 128/I-95 ring around Boston and replaced the cancelled highways with new transit projects. The results are unmistakable: 3,800 private homes were saved, there is a bustling innovation district at Kendall Square instead of a highway interchange, and Boston weathered the Great Recession better than almost anywhere else in the country, in large part by being a desirable urban place to live, work, study and visit.

Nothing as disruptive as the Inner Belt has ever been proposed in Manchester, and downtown Manchester is doing much better than the highway-scarred downtowns in Hartford, Springfield, Worcester and elsewhere in New England. But as the planning study for I-293 north of the new Granite Street interchange kicks off, it’s a good time to start thinking about transportation funding in New Hampshire, and the integration of transportation and planning in Manchester.

Does Manchester really need wider highways? Or with limited funds, would a better local and regional transit system better serve Manchester residents and spur more economic development? And when new transportation improvements are made like the recent interchange at Granite Street, shouldn’t zoning and planning be updated, so that the city gets something more than a suburban-style Dunkin Donuts at such a prominent urban gateway?

A young boy outside Manchester's Union Station in 1942. About twenty years later, it was torn down in favor of widened roads and car traffic. - Photo by George Lane.
A young boy outside Manchester’s Union Station in 1942. About twenty years later, it was torn down in favor of widened roads and car traffic. – Photo by George Lane.

In November 1972, when Governor Sargent announced a moratorium on highway construction within the 128/I-95 belt around Boston, he also began the modernization of the T transit system through the Boston region. Federal money that would have gone to destructive highways, which would have led to further sprawl and the need for even more highways, was diverted to fund much-needed transit projects that better served Boston area residents and the local economy. Land that had been cleared for the highway in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury allowed for a re-aligned and more modern Orange Line, as well as a linear urban park. Most important, though, the move signaled a re-investment in American cities after decades of “urban renewal” that led–in Boston, Manchester and throughout the country–to decimated downtowns and declining urban populations.

Manchester is fortunate in that–unlike Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford and many other New England cities–its downtown highway does not actually cut through downtown. Much of the Amoskeag Millyard was razed in the name of “urban renewal,” but only those mills on the west side of the river were torn down to build I-293. Unlike those other cities, downtown Manchester is not severed from its waterfront by an interstate.

But I-293, then known simply as the Everett Turnpike, caused controversy locally when it was built in the 1950s. According to the website, BostonRoads:

More than 160 landowners filed suit against the state for damages related to property acquisitions, including the former Edgcomb Steel plant on West Hollis Street in Manchester. Merchants in downtown Manchester also fought against the turnpike, fearing the loss of business from reduced traffic on [Elm] Street, which had been the busiest road in New Hampshire before the turnpike era.

With downtown Manchester still (but strongly) rebounding from decades of decline, those fears seem pretty well-founded. And it’s not just the interstates. Elm Street remains largely intact between Granite and Bridge streets, but those streets–used to get into the heart of downtown from the west–feel more like highways than urban streets.

Granite Street, the Millyard and Union Station in 1952 - photo from MHA.
Granite Street, the Millyard and Union Station in 1952 – photo from MHA.

Granite Street once led through the Millyard, continued past the robust Union Station near Canal Street, and finally ended at Elm Street, with downtown continuing to the north and south. Now, even with its twinkling lights and landscaped median, Granite Street ends with a bland 1980s office building to its north and a drive-through bank to its south. Even with the Verizon Wireless Arena at its end and the recent growth in the Gaslight District to its south, it doesn’t feel like a place.

Notre Dame Bridge marching through the Millyard toward Elm St.
Notre Dame Bridge marching through the Millyard toward Elm St.

Bridge Street always featured a taller bridge, spanning both the river and the Millyard, but until a little over twenty years ago, it was a prominent feature on the skyline. The graceful Notre Dame bridge, with its green arch and Art Deco piers, added a flourish to downtown Manchester while being lined with businesses between the Millyard and Elm Street. When it was replaced in 1989, the road was widened, and not only the old bridge, but the buildings lining it were torn down.

Granite Street at Elm Street today--a gas station, drive-thru bank, office tower, and an underused bus station--all a result of prioritizing cars over pedestrians, transit users, and a sense of place. - Photo by Voluntary Amputation
Granite Street at Elm Street today–a gas station, drive-thru bank, office tower, and an underused bus station–all a result of prioritizing cars over pedestrians, transit users, and a sense of place. – Photo by Voluntary Amputation

Like an interstate tearing through the heart of Boston, these roadways seem to get people downtown faster, but they make it a less interesting place to spend time. And in an age when people can increasingly live, work, study and visit where they choose–and they’re increasingly choosing to live, work and study in dynamic cities–transportation needs to be more about moving people around. It needs to be about giving them a reason to go somewhere. And to stay there.

Rather than taking more land and more buildings–more homes and businesses–for more highway lanes, New Hampshire and Manchester need to develop a transportation plan for the 21st century.

The Downeaster train is wildly popular, with 540,000 riders annually, including 92,000 to and from Exeter. The Capitol Corridor commuter rail is projected to carry many more. Photo from Amtrak.
The Downeaster train is wildly popular, with 540,000 riders annually, including 92,000 to and from Exeter. The Capitol Corridor commuter rail is projected to carry many more. Photo from Amtrak.

The recent election should increase the chances for finally restoring commuter rail through the Merrimack Valley, between Manchester, the airport, Concord, Nashua and Boston. While outgoing Governor John Lynch supports commuter rail, the Executive Council shortsightedly voted 3-2 in February to turn down a federal grant to study the project. Governor-elect Maggie Hassan is a rail supporter, and will be joined by an Executive Council, which is 4-1 in favor of the Capitol Corridor commuter rail project. That’s also about the ratio of public support for the project in the state.

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A “complete street” accommodates cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. It also tends to lead to economic development and increased property values. – Photo from Smart Growth America

But good transit and transportation options shouldn’t be a partisan political issue; it’s really an economic issue. As we discussed a few months ago, the long-touted “New Hampshire Advantage” seems to be waning, and New Hampshire is losing a huge portion of its young people, which isn’t so surprising given that it ranks dead last in funding for higher education. Businesses are looking for educated workers. Young people are leaving the state for cheaper education elsewhere. And once they leave, they often settle in cities that offer urban amenities that Manchester does not, even though many similarly sized cities do. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s seniors often have no way to get around without a car. And retirees, like young people, are increasingly looking to move to interesting urban places with alternatives to driving everywhere. On top of all that, owning a car is estimated to cost $9,000 a year–imagine, if many families in Manchester could reduce the number of cars they own with some people choosing to own none at all, how much more money could be spent in the local economy.

It’s often said that New Hampshire is a rural state, but in the southeastern corner from the Merrimack Valley to the Seacoast, that’s really not the case. According to the last census, 608,494 people live in the towns within the Manchester-Nashua-Salem triangle. That doesn’t include the Concord area, or the string of cities and towns on the Seacoast. Southeastern New Hampshire, and especially the Merrimack Valley, is densely populated by American standards, and investments in transit options like commuter rail and better local bus service would make the area much more attractive to prospective businesses and residents alike.

CTfastrak is under construction, and promises to bring better transit and economic development to Hartford. - Photo from CTfastrak
CTfastrak is under construction, and promises to bring better transit and economic development to Hartford. – Photo from CTfastrak

Now, forty years after the Inner Belt was cancelled, other cities in New England are re-imagining their transportation and development, and thus their economic and cultural future. Concord and Portsmouth have installed miles of bike lanes on city streets. Providence is actively planning for a downtown streetcar line, and developers and city officials are discussing a possible streetcar line in Portland. Even in Hartford, perhaps the most highway-ravaged city in New England, an ambitious bus rapid transit line is currently under construction and expected to open in 2014. It promises not only to give commuters in some of the city’s suburbs an alternative to sitting in traffic, but also to spur economic development in long struggling neighborhoods.

Maybe a streetcar or bus rapid transit system would be too ambitious for the Manchester area (but maybe not–it merits serious study), but at least commuter rail, and a vastly improved and better funded (including much more funding from the state) city bus system would be transformative for the city. And bike lanes should be added to major streets throughout the city.

It’s almost 2013. Most cities have long abandoned disruptive highway-widening schemes in their downtowns, in favor of greater investment in public transit, truly urban planning, and the economic development they bring.

It’s time for Manchester to follow suit. Any study of I-293 should be limited to improving interchanges and the highway’s presence in the city without widening, and should be balanced with serious studies and plans for improved public transit, from commuter rail to the local bus systems to bicycle infrastructure. And all that needs to be accompanied by planning and zoning changes to make sure that the roadway, transit and development goals are aligned.

Elm Street is occasionally closed for events like Cruising Downtown. Imagine if the city was more accommodating of pedestrians and transit users year-round. Photo by Nicholas Erwin.
Elm Street is occasionally closed for events like Cruising Downtown. Imagine if the city was more accommodating of pedestrians and transit users year-round. Photo by Nicholas Erwin.

Manchester’s 2009 Master Plan already integrates transportation, planning and zoning, to promote complete streets, mixed-use neighborhoods, a more desirable city, and strong economic growth. The aldermen should make the plan official and adopt its zoning recommendations, while working with the state to improve transit options for residents, workers, students and visitors, and ensure an integrated plan for a vibrant future for the city.

It’s almost 2013. It’s been forty years since Boston led the way in re-investment in American cities, and three years since Manchester published a visionary Master Plan. It’s time for action.

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3 thoughts on “Manchester needs a transportation plan for the 21st century

  1. All interesting! Although Manch may not need wider highways, the highway system along 293, and even 93 feel messy. The exits are sometimes confusing, or feel like they could be designed better. Also, the highways don’t connect well to the inner city. Alternative transportation, and better designed roads and exits could help with this.

    Although rail would be helpful, I think a regional and improved bus system with more modern technology may be more beneficial. Rail would service distances further, but buses would connect local communities. And I would be happy to see bike lanes anywhere!

    1. Exactly. Some of the interchanges, especially Exits 6 (Amoskeag Bridge) and 7 (Front St) could use some work. And it sounds like a big part of the 293 study will be about addressing those. Just like upgrading Exit 5 (Granite St) has improved access to downtown, so could Exit 6, and both Exits 6 & 7 could provide better access to the West Side. But that should be done in a manner that does not require widening the highway, especially through the downtown portion of the West Side.

      Equally important is that for the amount of money New Hampshire spends on highways, it spends almost nothing on public transit–far less than even our much more rural neighbors in Vermont and Maine. Wieczorek Drive, the access road from the Everett Turnpike to the airport, for instance, cost $175 million–that’s $100 million per mile! It’s likely that the entire commuter rail project from Concord to Massachusetts could be built for around the same price. And it seems dubious that that many more people are going to use Manchester Airport because they don’t have to drive the two miles down Brown Ave, compared with how many more might use it if they could take a train up from, say, Massachusetts. And you’re exactly right that any intercity transit, such as rail, should be integrated and complimented by much better local bus transit.

      New Hampshire, along with 29 other states, restricts the use of the gas tax solely to highway purposes, which the Brookings Institute says makes it much more difficult to properly invest in public transit to mitigate highway congestion and the need for more construction. It may have seemed like a good idea to make sure gas tax revenues weren’t being spent on something totally unrelated in the 1930s, when the state constitution was amended to restrict their use, but it’s time to revisit that wisdom. Forty years ago, Massachusetts was able to invest in public transit rather than much more expensive (in construction costs, future economic growth, and in quality of life) in large part by repealing a similar restriction in their constitution. As this past year showed, passing a constitutional amendment in New Hampshire is hard (as it should be), but perhaps an amendment to allow the use of the gas tax for highways and projects that would mitigate the need for further highway construction and maintenance (ie: passenger rail, intercity buses, maybe even local transit, and so on) could gain support. After all, most people in New Hampshire seem to understand that wider highways lead to more traffic, more sprawl, more strains on local education systems, and so on.

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