If anyone needs to understand the challenges of traveling to this region, this week’s two-day storm is a sober reminder. Getting here from there or there from here — well, sometimes you just can’t.
Sentinel staff writer Jake Lahut last month — well before there was snow on the ground — explored the transportation pains that impact Keene daily and, for all likelihood, will do so for years to come. J.B. Mack, principal planner for the Southwest Region Planning Commission, called it a “transportation crisis.” The state’s woefully underfunded Highway Fund is not showering this area in money. And there’s little hope ahead: A N.H. Department of Transportation study shows a $90 million funding gap over the next 10 years just to meet basic needs in the state. Sure, there will be paving and fixing of state roads and bridges. Expansion? Not likely.
Public or commuter transportation services here are mostly restricted to City Express, a few private sources and a commercial bus service through Keene that has been described as infrequent and often late.
Mayor-elect George Hansel has said improved transportation is critical to the region and to Keene proper. We would argue that it, combined with a lack of affordable housing and available childcare, are the three wobbly legs of the stool on which our overall workforce shortage sits.
This is not to say the region didn’t choose this. We don’t need to mention the history of opposition to widening Route 101, coming from the east. Or the fact that Dublin has a roundabout and a traffic island. You get the idea. To this point, preserving the region’s rural character, which many claim would be disrupted by a more expansive road network, has taken priority. Still, what do chambers of commerce folks say to businesses seeking to expand west from busy — and expensive — Manchester and Nashua?
And about flying, Hansel gets it right when he says that airports in Manchester, Boston and Connecticut are “all equally inconvenient.”
You can take a bus to Boston Logan International Airport. Thursday, a Greyhound leaves just before noon from the former Keene Transportation Center on Gilbo Avenue. After stops, that inexplicably include Bellows Falls and White River Junction, Vt., you’ll get to Logan at 6:30 p.m. Bring your laptop and a full day’s work. At least there’s Wi-Fi. The cost varies day-to-day, running between $31 and $45.
Or, you could go to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport Thursday, on the same bus, leaving Keene at 11:55 a.m. and arriving four hours and 10 minutes later. Bring a good book. You can take a bus to Hartford in just 3½ hours, but it doesn’t stop at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.
And about that Transportation Center? It’s occupied by Yolo Café. Bus patrons will go inside during inclement weather such as this week’s storm; so will homeless people, says Kostas Georgiadis, owner of the café. Otherwise, they’ll wait outside for City Express bus service or the Greyhound.
Hansel and other city officials want the center upgraded, and, if that occurs, it would be a meaningful part of the Monadnock Economic Development Corp.’s vision for an arts corridor, which will sweep along Gilbo Avenue. Whether such an upgrade will in any way improve access to and from the region is unknown. Maybe it’s a start.
More fundamental to the transportation challenges here is what this region wants to be as an overall economy. While Keene is truly the hub of southwestern New Hampshire, it’s not an area growing in population, property values, jobs and other measures of economic health. Its residents are fiercely protective of the area’s beauty, its friendliness, its rural nature and, to this point, have not had the motivation to disrupt this.
Perhaps, in time, broadband service will be fast enough so that more people will choose this place to work because they can do so from home. Or businesses focused on sustainability and seeking to lay down roots in a community that is environmentally minded will come here. Or more local businesses will be able to adopt family-friendly measures so that daycare options are more accessible.
But we worry there’s a great risk that local employers, struggling to find workers, and workers, struggling to find affordable housing and daycare, will leave. And businesses looking to expand from outside the region will do something that is so hard to do on Route 101 — pass.