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South Willow Street Aerial Photo

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Original post can be viewed here.

Even as Concord considers the possibility of putting up with a decade of construction to tweak the big highway that cuts us in half, a smaller but more interesting transportation project is percolating in Manchester.

The project, which carries the uplifting name RAISE Manchester, isn’t exactly small – $30 million is nothing to sneeze at – and, like Concord’s quarter-billion-dollar proposal, its core purpose is to make life easier for people moving around in cars and trucks. But unlike the proposed I-93 expansion, which is designed to let vehicles move through the city as fast as possible with a couple of enhancements tacked on for the rest of us, this is a project centered around keeping people in a city.

Importantly, RAISE Manchester wants to make it easier to use different methods of travel, get not just cars, when moving among Manchester’s downtown, the Millyard and South Willow Street, a philosophy covered by the clumsy engineering term “multimodal transport.” This makes it more useful to more people but also more complicated.

“It’s always a balance in what we look at. … Multimodal transport but not at the expense of backing up traffic,” said Kristen Clarke, project manager for the Manchester Department of Public Works.

I like the project because it seems to realize that the reason city people often avoid alternatives to cars – bicycles, walking, buses – is that we’ve spent half a century shaping cities around car traffic, making the alternatives unpleasant, difficult or dangerous. I mean, can you imagine trying to ride a bike on South Willow Street?

A part of RAISE Manchester seeks a partial balance to that philosophy. “The more infrastructure you build, the more you can potentially convert people to use bikes,” said Clarke.

The goal of RAISE Manchester to overcome the division between the downtown and southern end of Manchester caused by railroad tracks, some of them used and some abandoned, and expand what might be considered Manchester center. If done right, this could make it possible for more people to live and work and shop within the city without driving, which is exactly what the world needs more of.

Considering that Manchester is undergoing something of a housing boom – there are roughly 1,400 rental units under construction or awaiting approval in the city right now – the timing seems right.

RAISE Manchester involves several disparate improvements including a new pedestrian bridge connecting Commercial and South Commercial streets; a new roadway and bridge from South Commercial Street behind the baseball stadium and over the active railroad to Elm Street; a new roadway extension from Gas Street, providing an alternative connection to South Willow Street; and a new pedestrian and bicycle path along the abandoned railroad corridor connecting Queen City Avenue and Elm Street.

Clarke notes that the plan has three bridges, two of which will allow bikes and walkers and one which is for pedestrians only.

There’s one other thing that I must admit looks very cool: a proposed “peanut” roundabout replacing the signalized intersection where Queen City Avenue and South Willow Street collide. You can think of it as two roundabouts mushed together to make something that looks like a cell halfway through mitosis. It looks like it would be fun to loop-de-loop drive it late at night when nobody’s around.

The project has won a $25 million federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant, hence the name, but there are more decisions to be made about how to pay for it.

You can learn about that and lots more at a public hearing Wednesday, Dec. 7. at 6 p.m. in the Manchester Public Library Auditorium. Before you go, check details on the website

Now for a bit of wet-blanket-dom. I’m more enthusiastic about RAISE Manchester than the misguided Concord I-93 plan because of its emphasis on making life better for other than two-ton metal boxes on wheels. But I know that the money is being offered only because of those metal boxes – just as in Concord any walking bridges over the highway or river access will happen only if we agree to spend zillions of dollars “improving” vehicle travel.

And I know if corners have to be cut in Manchester, it will be the pedestrians and bicyclists who will suffer before traffic does. Cars still rule our thinking.

Don’t believe me? Consider this painful bit of irony: The announcement for the meeting tells you where to find nearby free parking, using the sort of subsidized surface lot that makes cities unfriendly to anything but cars. What doesn’t it tell you? How to get there by bus.