Gridlock expected to grow
Pelham — High above the village center, where million-dollar homes dot the hillsides, the view curves all the way from Manchester Airport to Lawrence, Mass.
The town of Pelham grew in this pocket, between the chaos of two major highways and some of the largest cities in the region.
"There isn’t a service, a store, a restaurant or anything else you might want that isn’t located within a 20-minute drive in four directions out of town on a back road," said Bill Scanzani, a longtime resident who chairs the town’s planning board.
All of this has made Pelham, a town of roughly 12,000 people, one of southern New Hampshire’s most attractive communities for affluent families and busy commuters. And that, in turn, is creating some big problems.
State planning officials estimate that Pelham is due to receive another 8,000 residents over the coming 20 years. That kind of injection, Scanzani says, could cripple the town’s major roadways and drastically lengthen those short trips out of town.
"If you think 12,000 people can’t get through the town center now, just wait," he said.
Other towns in southern New Hampshire are likely to see their own transportation troubles as the region’s population continues to swell. Hillsborough, Merrimack and Rockingham counties alone are expected to grow more than 20 percent over the next two decades.
And while the state is preparing to launch its most ambitious highway project in years — the widening of Interstate 93 — Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray acknowledges that little can be done to quell the mounting congestion on the rest of the region’s roadways.
"We have to be committed to making a change in our lifestyles," Murray said. "And that’s a tough nut to crack."
State officials hope the widening of I-93, expected to cost $480 million, will ease commuting times between Manchester and Boston. At the same time, they anticipate the project will spur even more people to move to southern New Hampshire.
A 2001 report compiling the estimates of various planning and development experts from around the region found that widening the highway would bring about 36,000 new residents to New Hampshire, on top of the many thousands more expected to come regardless.
"Clearly, if you dump that number of additional cars into the region, there is going to be increased traffic congestion no matter how you do it," said Steve Williams, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission.
Williams, whose office recently studied the potential impact of continued growth and development in the greater Nashua region, said options for widening current highways or building new ones are few and far between. Most of the area’s infrastructure will have to suffice for decades to come, he said.
Unless residents change their driving habits, he said, there will be problems.
"If you wanted to drive across the Nashua region from the east border of Hudson to, let’s say, the town center of Wilton, what you would see would be almost continuous congestion," he said. "There would be no breaks going across there."
Planning consultant Jeff Taylor painted a similar picture for greater Concord. His own analysis of growth trends projected traffic there will climb steadily between now and 2030.
By that time, he estimated, the 7½-mile drive from downtown Concord to Pembroke’s Suncook Village, which currently takes 15 minutes, is likely to take 40 minutes. The drive to Epsom Circle, a mere 18-minute trip today, is likely to take 50 minutes.
No quick fixes
Murray is not proposing any quick fixes. The answer, she said, involves some long-term planning.
The commissioner said she’d like to promote public transportation, including the possibility of a commuter rail extension that would provide easy access from Nashua and Manchester to Boston.
Her vision also includes buses, both in the cities and in their smaller suburbs. Even rural communities, she said, could have shuttle lines from their most populous residential areas to their commercial and municipal centers.
It won’t happen anytime soon, she conceded. In addition to the costs and lost convenience, bus systems would require denser population clusters. Even the state’s three biggest cities are struggling to make public transportation work, she said.
"You can provide a bus, but you can’t make people get on it," Murray said.
This month, Murray met with planning officials from around the region to discuss strategies for managing growth. The meeting marked the start of a $3.5 million project, the Community Technical Assistance Program, that promises to address the side-effects of growth in the I-93 corridor.
Among the program’s objectives is encouraging local planners to promote mixed-use developments, where residential and commercial buildings would sit side by side. In these neighborhoods, residents would not have to drive far to run errands. They might even walk.
Those kinds of neighborhoods were plentiful 60 years ago, Williams said. It will probably take another 60 years to bring them back, he said.
"I’m not expecting it to happen overnight," he said. "(But) at this point, given the declining resources we have, we don’t really have all that many choices."