A “playbook” to address current and future traffic needs of Interstate 81 will be issued this fall, according to a local planning department official.
The I-81 Improvement Strategy project team will finish this summer identifying focus area improvements and developing candidate projects for District 8’s 12 identified highway segments.
District 8, as established by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), runs from the Maryland state line in Franklin County to near exit 100 at the Schuylkill County line. For the purposes of this project and given its proximity to I-81, planners have also included Interstate 78 from the I-81/78 split in Lebanon County to the Berks County line, according to Jon Fitzkee, Assistant Director/Senior Transportation Planner, Lebanon County Planning Department.
How soon the team’s playbook recommendations will be implemented hinges on several key factors: current and future needs and funding availability.
Fitzee said the purpose of the team’s “Playbook to Set Strategies” is to not only identify projects but to address estimated costs associated with each need category. (The project team is led by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and consists of partners from PennDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and planning department officials in Lebanon and Franklin counties.)
“A goal of the playbook for the 81 strategy is to give us a sense of whether we are talking, for example, about a $2 million or a $20 million project,” Fitzkee said. “As we have identified projects and put them into our long-range transportation plan, which is updated every four to five years, we will work on projects as money becomes available.”
The traffic needs in Lebanon County are markedly different than those in the much more congested areas that run through Dauphin, Cumberland and Franklin counties, Fitzkee said. There is about 100 miles of highway on I-81 within the District 8 corridor.
Although congestion and safety issues received 32 and 29 percent, respectively, of the 1,160 surveys received for the team’s focus area of concerns, Lebanon County does not have congestion issues, according to Fitzkee, so playbook efforts for the area are being concentrated on safety, traffic operations and future needs.
“The congestion and safety percentages are for the overall corridor based on the feedback we received from the public,” Fitzkee said. “Lebanon does not have a congestion issue but we’ve had the conversation, as a growing county, on how do we prepare better access. With the I-78/81 interchange being unique along the corridor and being a major junction, we do have issues of (driver) confusion there.”
While it doesn’t have the same problems that plague other sections of I-81 within the district, the approximate 15-mile section of highway that passes through Lebanon County still has some current challenges that need to be addressed, according to Fitzkee.
The Lickdale interchange is the one spot that does experience congestion on a regular basis, Fitzkee noted.
“A lot of trucks trying to get into Love’s (travel plaza) to stop there is a problem,” Fitzkee said. “A lot of times that connection there is not ideal for that volume of traffic, so obviously there are some improvements that need to be looked at.”
Another problem spot is the bridge that crosses Swope’s Valley Road, which sits along mile marker 93. A dangerous curve at the bridge contributes to numerous accidents—especially for tractor trailer drivers who may not be familiar with the highway.
“When we started talking about issues in the corridor and the consultant team started pulling data, that is a conversation that we’ve had before,” Fitzkee said about safety concerns at that location. “We have had discussions about placing curve warning signage there.”
Fitzkee added that a separate regional operations plan, which was conducted across the entire District 8 region to address traffic safety concerns, has also highlighted that location as problematic.
“It identified the need for a curve warning for that location, in particular, and for several other locations as well,” Fitzkee said. “The interstate committee and the district have some resources, so I believe there will be warnings placed there but I don’t know if safety materials, where we place high-friction surfaces, is something that will be used.”
Fitzkee said another high-priority solution to address safety and highway operations in Lebanon County includes adding cameras at certain locations to monitor traffic and potential incidents.
“There was some discussion, too, in our workgroup about expanding the I-81 surface patrols,” said Fitzkee. “Certainly there are a lot of them around Harrisburg, but there was talk to have them assist stranded motorists.”
The committee has also been studying potential solutions to rerouting traffic if roads maintained by PennDOT around Fort Indiantown Gap are turned over to the military installation to heighten security at the facility. Currently, when necessary, traffic is detoured onto Route 934 to Fisher Avenue, which connects with I-81 at the Lickdale exit whenever there is a traffic incident on I-81 between the Annville/Fort Indiantown Gap exits to the south and the Lickdale exit to the north.
“A master study looked at formalizing that (highway base closure),” Fitzkee said, “so when you drive there, you may no longer be able to just simply go through the base to get to the other side. The only other alternative is that we have a parallel (roadway), which is why (Route) 22 is something that we’ve looked at very closely because it is certainly a unique feature that Lebanon County has in a fairly limited-access roadway that parallels (interstates) 81 and 78.”
However, Route 22, because it is a limited-access highway, presents its own set of problems – especially for first responders and law enforcement officials when they respond to an emergency on I-81, Fitzkee noted.
“When you don’t have complete access, if you are a first responder, and you need to go from point A to point B and get back out, you don’t have direct access,” Fitzkee said. “We have a half interchange at Legionnaire Drive near Fredericksburg and we have no interchange on (Route) 72 that you can get direct access near the 78/81 interchange. And, you have to go to the Lickdale exit to get back.”
Having several major roads in proximity is a good problem to have but a lack of inter-connectivity prevents maximizing their use when incidents impact traffic flow, Fitzkee added.
“That’s probably a need that really needs to be drilled down to to decide, number one, where is the appropriate place to say, for Fredericksburg, that maybe we make that half interchange a full interchange to have more complete access, and do we want to look at a significant improvement of adding in a new connection point that will allow better and more direct access,” FItzkee said.
A possible solution to aid first responders and law enforcement officers would be modeled after technology already used on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“We’ve also talked about roadways that get close to 81 and if there could be – like you see on the turnpike – where you have a controlled access that only police and EMS would have access to that’s gated and controlled for their use,” Fitzkee said.
Yet another alternative under consideration is a Route 72/Interstate 78 connection.
“When you see what’s happening in Lickdale with a lot of trucking and where people are trying to get to, if we had a 72 and 78 connection, you would have better connection not only between 22 and that corridor but you might also be able to alleviate some of the pressures put on the Lickdale Interchange, which is overwhelmed with (traffic going to ) Love’s,” said Fitzkee.
All of these potential solutions, however, are big-ticket items, according to Fitzkee, that will cost plenty of money to implement.
“These are not going to be things that we can say, ‘hey, we got money set aside and we need to do it,’” said Fitzkee. “That’s likely something that needs to be followed up with some kind of transportation bill.”
Fitzkee added that a previous estimate, which is now dated, for a Route 72 interchange could cost between $50-$100 million, and he added that an half-interchange improvement could cost “tens of millions of dollars.”
Money aside, questions still remain as to whether there should be another interchange that close to the I-81/78 split and whether the “whole area should look different to address access, safety and future use.”
While funding and questions linger, there is no doubt that the I-81 Corridor in Lebanon County will continue to grow. Fitzkee said cargo ships bringing goods into New York City harbors continue to grow, meaning there’s a need now to plan for future growth that ultimately is in the best interest of Lebanon County.
“We’re certainly going to see growth pressures,” said Fitzkee. “But maybe the way to bridge the gulf is if we can find public/private partnerships that have a shared interest in making these improvements happen.”
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