Planning for I-81 upgrades moves into next stage of multi-year effort

7 min read1,765 views and 131 shares Posted February 20, 2020

The heavily traveled stretch of Interstate 81 through south-central Pennsylvania is badly in need of an upgrade.

Transportation planners are looking at ways to improve the superhighway as it traverses roughly 100 miles from the Maryland border in Franklin County, through Cumberland and Dauphin counties and about 20 miles of Lebanon County to Interstate 78.

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One option that’s been proposed is widening the entire corridor from four lanes to six.

But that might not be the solution the region needs — or can afford — according to Jonathan Fitzkee, assistant director of the Lebanon County Planning Department.

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“We don’t have the kind of resources to make that whole corridor six lanes,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re looking at the whole of I-81 and that portion of the I-78 corridor, trying to zero in on the needs that are very different across the corridor.”

For instance, he said, Lebanon County needs better access to both highways.

“We have a lot of areas where we don’t have direct access to 81 and 78 that we want to look at in the future, but right now we don’t know what that would cost,” Fitzkee said.

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So, officials along the 100-mile stretch are conducting a $750,000 study to decide what needs to be done and what they can afford to do.

They hope to wrap up the study by late spring, with final recommendations to follow. Even so, Fitzkee said, it’s unlikely any work will begin before 2021 at the earliest.

It depends on the complexity of the jobs, Steve Deck, executive director of Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, explained. Designing a new acceleration lane, for instance, might take less than a year, he said, while drawing plans for a new interchange could take five years or more to complete.

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Meanwhile, people can comment online at i81southcentralpa.com.

Mostly, Fitzkee said, “people keep asking, ‘Are you ever going to do this?’ We’ve been talking about it for years.”

Dave Thompson, district press officer for Engineering District 8, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, noted that the I-81 Improvement Strategy is “not a project but a planning process that will result in a playbook for setting priorities to fund a series of projects as resources become available” through the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program and regional long-range transportation plans.

Planning began last fall, Thompson said, and no new projects have been greenlit yet as a result.

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“As with any project or groups of projects, funding is the first challenge,” he said in an email. “The transportation funding pie is limited and there always are competing interests and priorities vying for a piece of it. The strategy that comes out of this planning process will identify the priorities for future funding consideration.”

Consequently, he said, it’s “too soon” to predict when construction projects could begin.

“By the end of the summer, a priority list of specific improvements will be identified and grouped into logical project sections based on factors such as safety, condition of the road, congestion and public input,” Thompson said. “Keep in mind we are very early in the process and this is only the first step. Public input is essential to this process, which is why we are engaging people every step of the way. We need to know what the concerns are from the people who live and drive in the I-81 corridor so we can take those concerns, along with our own data, to determine our course of action.”

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To date, he said, about 900 people have completed the survey “and ranked congestion and safety as the top needs in the corridor, specifically citing short merge lanes, traffic congestion, aggressive drivers and high truck volumes as primary concerns,” Thompson noted. “Solutions to the needs will be explored next and another survey and public meeting will be scheduled to collect feedback on the findings.”

Likewise, it’s too early to estimate the overall cost of improvements, Thompson said, “but suffice it to say it will be very expensive.”

I-81 runs roughly north-to-south from the Canadian border in Fisher’s Landing, New York, to Dandridge, Tennessee.

Although construction on I-81 dates to the mid-1950s, the highway owes its route to trails blazed by Native Americans and early American settlers along the Appalachian Mountains. The corridor was used heavily by troops during the Civil War and eventually evolved into U.S. Route 11 before new roadways were cut beginning in the ’50s. These days, I-81 is a major trucking route, serving as an alternative to interstates 85 and 95.

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“Overall, use in the corridor has steadily grown,” Fitzkee said.

All indications point to “more pressures from the I-78 and 81 corridor,” he added. “That’s what we have to deal with. But it goes beyond … saying we need another lane and then it’ll be done.”

Thompson said the average daily traffic volumes in some sections of the 100-mile corridor “exceed 100,000 vehicles per day,” and “these volumes are expected to increase due to current and future development.”

On the other hand, Deck said, some portions see only 45,000 vehicles per day.

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“It varies dramatically throughout the corridor,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all problem.”

Much of the corridor’s growth in recent years has been traffic coming west from the Allentown area — partly spurred by an influx of warehousing operations for Amazon and other online retailers, Fitzkee said, although he noted that the percentage of trucks on the highway has not changed significantly.

“I expect that is only going to increase, based on the trends that we’re seeing in the way people shop,” he said.

Lebanon County, too, is experiencing a growth spurt, Fitzkee added.

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“Lebanon is a prime location… along an area where that demand is only going to increase,” he said.

Also, he said, a recent report that increased security at the Fort Indiantown Gap military base will close off some roadways near the I-81 interchange will have an impact on local traffic flow, although the precise effect remains to be seen.

Read More: Increased security coming to Fort Indiantown Gap; construction of two gates to start this spring

Deck noted that responses to the survey have been “very well distributed” along the length of the corridor and have focused primarily on congestion and safety.

Officials are coordinating a meeting with local Chambers of Commerce to hear from area businesses, Deck added. He hopes for a discussion in mid-March.

I-81, he said, handles “some of the highest shipping volumes in the region. … It has a real regional significance, a huge volume of delivery of goods. Something like 10 percent of the whole Gross National Product of the United States at some point comes through the I-81 corridor.”

The six-lane proposal dates back to a study done in 2005, Deck said. The cost to accomplish that, he said, was estimated at $1.8 billion then – or about $3 billion in today’s dollars.

“That is money we don’t have and don’t see on the horizon,” Fitzkee said. “That’s more than we can afford right now.”

Besides, Fitzkee said, I-81’s needs differ from county to county. In the Harrisburg area, for instance, a key issue is highway capacity. But in Lebanon County, he said, a major concern is the area around Routes 81 and 78, along with questions of convenient highway access and growth in the region.

There currently are three exits off I-81 in Lebanon County: exits 85-A and B at Route 934, near Annville and Fort Indiantown Gap in East Hanover Township; and exits 89, near the western terminus of I-78, and 90, with access to Route 72 via Fisher Avenue, both in Union Township.

“We don’t want to be hamstrung just into widening the interstate,” Fitzkee said.

“But where we need to drill down in Lebanon County is, what is a reasonable dollar amount?” he asked. “Is this something we can do?” And, because any improvements would benefit local businesses, he added, “is there potential for a public-private partnership?”

The federal government provides $10 million to $12 million annually for transportation improvements — funds that are dispersed by the state to pay for work on bridges, highways and other transportation needs, he said.

Even if all of the federal money would be earmarked for I-81, Fitzkee said, it would take years to pay for the full project — and, during that time, no other improvements would be funded.

The acquisition of land also won’t be cheap, he noted. “Our consulting team is already reaching out to municipalities with regards to zoning” along the corridor, he said.

Typically, Deck said, a highway project of this magnitude would receive 80 percent of its funding from federal sources and about 20 percent from the state.

Unfortunately, he said, “the needs are increasing significantly, but they haven’t done anything to increase federal dollars in some time.”

Meanwhile, he said, PennDOT is exploring other avenues for raising revenue for improvements to the transportation infrastructure. A public-private partnership, he agreed, could inject much-needed funds into the corridor.

Deck said people who are interested in learning more about the project as it progresses should keep an eye on the website — i81southcentralpa.com — for updates.

“It’s kind of a fluid thing right now,” Fitzkee said, noting that the project team is meeting regularly to discuss priorities for the highway.

“The department and our region are certainly focused on moving these projects forward,” he said. “We’re looking for funding from the feds. We need to make our case. If we can secure the dollars, we can get these improvements off the ground and bring them to fruition.”

“We want to understand in our region where the key problem areas are so we can start addressing them now, rather than waiting for other problems to evolve 10, 20 years from now,” Deck added.

“We’re doing everything we can to understand a very complex section of highway. It varies mile to mile,” he added. “Once the improvements are in place, people should be able to see the differences. They should feel safer. They should get caught in congestion less frequently.”

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