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The stretch of Interstate 81 through south-central Pennsylvania is busier than ever, and sorely in need of an upgrade.

For the past two years, transportation planners have conducted an intensive and comprehensive project to explore the future of this critical corridor.

Midstate planners were specifically looking 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.

The process was facilitated by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC), PennDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration, along with the individual Metropolitan Planning Organizations for Franklin and Lebanon counties.

The group released its final playbook late last month.

“The new I-81 Improvement Strategy website highlights the key initiatives and projects that are detailed in the completed Playbook,” said Steve Deck, executive director of TCRPC, in a press release. “The I-81 Playbook explores both near and long-term projects to improve the corridor and addresses both the infrastructure and economic impact the roadway has on the surrounding communities.”

Visualization of the public feedback opportunities throughout the planning process.

The span of I-81 in scope for the planning process was further subdivided into a few separate focus areas, one of which was “Rural Dauphin/Lebanon counties.” Specific needs highlighted for this focus area included: high congestion, specifically high truck volumes; travel delays, especially with southbound travel; anticipated future development pressure; aging or missing infrastructure.

The planners identified two concepts that could help with these mobility issues: adding “running shoulders” to both lanes and/or adding a third southbound lane. The total cost of adding the hard running shoulders between exits 72 and 89 was estimated at $139.2 million, compared to $204.6 million for adding a third southbound lane.

According to the project summary, PennDOT currently spends about $450 million annually on interstate highways, with that amount expected to grow to $1 billion by 2028. Projects in the playbook are not guaranteed to get completed, but the document will serve as a guide for setting priorities going forward, and used as a tool to prioritize projects as funding becomes available.

“I’m excited about the value that this project has placed on the I-81 corridor and the opportunities to improve the roadway for the benefit of the residents of our region,” said Jon Fitzkee, senior transportation planner at the Lebanon County MPO, in a press release.

For the full playbook and more information about the process, visit I81SouthCentralPA.com.

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