King of the Roads

Wallace Stickney, the combative former state Transportation Commissioner who battled for years with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over wetland requirements, is not a man who will easily change sides in a battle. But he recalls doing something like that in perhaps the biggest controversy yet in the growth of the Interstate Highway System in New Hampshire.

“I was on both sides of that,” Stickney says about the extension of Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch, virtually under the nose of the now deceased Old Man of the Mountain. The initial plans, including an underground tunnel and a four-lane highway, drew strong opposition from a number of environmental groups in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. It was also opposed by the EPA, where Stickney was then employed as director of the Economic and Environmental Impact Office at Region I in Boston. Years later, as an assistant to Gov. John H. Sununu, Stickney helped implement a compromise to create a two-lane parkway with lower speed limits and less stringent curve and gradation requirements. The result was more esthetically pleasing and required less land and less blasting and rearranging of the landscape than the typical interstate.

No one can say for sure if the compromise met with the approval of the Old Man, but you might say he overlooked the road for nearly 20 years. Did the blasting and all the traffic that followed hasten his downfall in May of 2003?

“It had been there for a million years or so,” says Stickney. “There is an opinion that the cables and turnbuckles put in to hold it up contributed to its demise as the result of harmonic vibrations of the wind on the cables. There are as many theories as there are people for that baby.”

Stickney, Transportation Commissioner from 1985-90, became involved with the interstate back in 1958 when, fresh out of the army, he took a job with the state highway department, working as an inspector of the stretch of I-93 being built from Franconia to Littleton. The main north-south artery through New Hampshire opened up the southern part of the state to new development, as retail shoppers and eventually high-tech companies from Massachusetts made their way north to what would come to be known as the New Hampshire’s “Golden Triangle.” It also brought a new wave of tourism to Lakes Region and the North Country.

“I remember when I was in Plymouth State Teachers College sitting in class from 1959 to ’63, and you could see the interstate coming up the Pemigewasset Valley,” says Executive Councilor Raymond Burton of Bath. “It’s opened up areas that never would have been opened up, areas like Woodstock and Lincoln, for outdoor recreation.”

On June 29, Burton and Dick Hamilton, former director of White Mountains Attractions, will lead a procession of classic cars from Concord to Littleton as part of a daylong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

The caravan will end at the state welcome center off Exit 44 by Moore Dam Lake, where I-93 leads into Vermont and joins I-91 in St. Johnsbury.

The trip will be preceded by a ceremony at the New Hampshire Police Academy, off Exit 15 in Concord and followed by a reception and social hour at the welcome center. The celebration concludes with dinner at the Eastgate Motor Inn and Restaurant in Littleton. The social hour and dinner are sponsored by the Littleton Chamber of Commerce and its counterpart in St. Johnsbury.

“We in northern Vermont have a special affinity with those in northern New Hampshire anyway,” says Darcie McCann, executive director of Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce. The convergence of the two highways has cemented that relationship, while bringing people and commerce to the northern end of both states, she says.

“Unlike some other parts of the nation, where it’s considered a negative to ride on the interstate, our systems offer a sense of beauty and are a treat to the visitors”, says McCann.

Economist Russell Thibeault of Applied Economic Research in Laconia says the accelerated economic and population growth the interstates brought to New Hampshire reflect the enormous change wrought nationwide by an integrated system of roads across an entire continent.

“Second homes proliferated in the lakes and mountain settings, ski areas were built, all because they’re within an easy drive of the population center of metropolitan Boston,” he notes.

As the decades-old transportation system became a routine part of our lives, most Americans hardly remember what life was like without it, Thibeault says.

“Think of having to drive Route 3 with a red light every 10 blocks between Manchester and Logan Airport,” he says. “It would take you three hours. If you took today’s traffic and tried to generate it through a non-interstate New England, forget it. Stay home.”

Thibeault doubts the project could be duplicated in today’s economy. Land acquisition alone, he said, would make the cost prohibitive. Environmental concerns that have arisen since the 1950s and ‘60s would also make it impossible, says Burton.

“There’s too much resistance,” the executive councilor says. “Going out into the woods and wild — it could never be done today.”

“It changed the face of America as much as the railroads did and maybe more,” Thibeault says. “I don’t think most people appreciate the kind of transformation it has made to the country and the way we live. It has had a major impact on productivity of business, the decline of the railroads, it’s reshaped the landscape, allowing suburbanization to easily occur.”

Nancy Girard, who runs the Concord office of the Conservation Law Foundation agrees, but thinks the interstate highways have become something of a mixed blessing, contributing to a “cycle of sprawl” affecting environmental and land use issues not yet seen when the program started 50 years ago.

CLF has filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction against the planned $480 million widening of the 18-mile stretch of I-93 from Salem to Manchester. The conservation advocacy group also would like to see Article 6-A of the New Hampshire Constitution, limiting revenues from the gas tax for highway construction and maintenance, rewritten to include funding for other forms of transportation, including rail. The amendment was ratified in 1938.

“What was great in 1938 doesn’t work in the new century,” says Girard. “We just need to have a paradigm shift so that we are providing multiple modes of transportation to people.”

Russell MacCleery, a veteran lobbyist who helped get that amendment passed, has heard that argument before.

“If they want to raise money for railroad trains, let them raise it from people who are going to use the trains, just like highway users pay through (gasoline) taxes,” he says.

MacCleery, still working at 93, represents the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association in Concord. He was working for the National Highway Users Conference in 1955 and ’56, when he helped organize grass roots support for President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway plan.

“I was very much involved in it,” he recalls. “I made speeches all over the country.”

Eisenhower’s interest in an integrated system of roads took root during a long military career in which he had seen the potential for moving troops and arms swiftly throughout the country.

“When he was over in Germany, he’d seen the Autobahn, and that’s where he got the idea,” MacCleery recalls. World War II hero Frank Merrill of “Merrill’s Marauders” fame was New Hampshire’s director of what was then the Department of Public Works and Highways in the postwar years and was an advocate of the interstate system when the bill was before Congress.

New Hampshire’s interests also were being watched by Sherman Adams, the former governor and then Eisenhower’s chief of staff.

MacCleery still marvels at what has grown out of the plan to build 45,000 miles of roads that would handle 25 percent of all the traffic in the country. Its impact on the nation far outweighs the more glamorous achievement of landing a man on the moon in 1969, he says.

“I don’t think there’s any comparison,” he says. “The interstate has done so much and affected so many lives.”

MacCleery will be riding with Burton and state Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray in Burton’s 1959 Cadillac limousine at the head of the procession to Littleton along I-93 to celebrate the anniversary.

“It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” says Burton. “It’ll be a fun day of celebration.”

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