April 6, 2006

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Concord Publisher's Note: Time and the river
By Dan Szczesny

Interstate 93 was built through Concord two generations ago, at the height of the nation’s post-war highway construction boom. And when you look at how it was done, you have to wonder what people were thinking.

First engineer: “OK, we’re building this limited-access highway through Concord. Let’s see, the easiest thing to do is to just ram it through town along the west bank of the Merrimack River. That’ll make it nice and easy.”

Second engineer: “Gee, won’t this prevent the area from being developed as a park, where people could walk and enjoy the riverside’s natural beauty?”

First engineer: “What are you, some kind of sissy? This is the post World War II era! It’s now the God-given right of Americans to be able to drive cars everywhere. No one walks anywhere anymore.”

Second engineer: “Gee, won’t this create a forbidding barrier that artificially divides the community?”

First engineer: “What are you, a communist? This highway is Concord’s road to the future! Without it, the town will just be an ordinary run-of-the-mill New Hampshire city—like, say, Keene!

Second engineer: “Gee, won’t this ruin an important area of wetlands and also affect the river’s flood plain?

First engineer: “Wetlands? What are they? If you mean that swampy land along the river, we’ll fill that in no problem. Look, you’re impeding progress. Either you get with the program or I’m reporting you to General Eisenhower!”

Of course the highway got built, and as in so many American communities, it was indeed rammed right through town, with little regard to the long-term consequences.

The danger now is that Interstate 93 has been here so long, most of us have come to accept it unquestioningly as a permanent part of the landscape, not unlike the Merrimack River itself.

Well, it isn’t. The highway is a manmade thing that can certainly be improved. It’s brought a lot of good to Concord, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be made better.

The most recent plan to reengineer I-93 was outlined in the “2020 Vision for Concord” report a few years ago. The plan called for shifting the highway’s path slightly to the west and depressing it as it runs through the largely unused former railroad yard. This would open up the riverbank, creating a park area not unlike Boston’s Charles River Esplanade.

It’s a good and realistic plan, but it’s unlikely the road’s alignment will be changed anytime soon. Among other reasons, the state recently spent a huge sum to upgrade Exit 13 along the existing right-of-way.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for an eventual realignment, which would be much better for Concord in the long run. Just because the highway’s been there all this time doesn’t mean it always will be. After all, even the course of the river itself changes now and then.

In the meantime, if there’s any comfort in this lack of progress, it can perhaps be found by pondering which of today’s assumptions will look as ludicrous to future generations as those of I-93’s designers look today.


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