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Lower Macungie approves Route 222/I-78 traffic study with eye on future interstate interchange

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 22 2013 06:09:38 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 22 2013 07:21:53 PM CDT
LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

A $10,000 traffic enhancement study will be done where Route 222 and Hamilton Boulevard meet Interstate 78 in Lower Macungie Twp., Lehigh Co.

On Thursday night, Lower Macungie commissioners unanimously authorized Keystone Consulting Engineers, the township’s engineering firm, to do the study, which will be completed in three to six months.

Keystone already has nearly completed a similar traffic study for Upper Macungie Township, which focuses on the area where Route 100 and I-78 intersect.

Results of the two studies will be combined into a report that will be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

In addition to modifications that might be recommended on those state roads to improve traffic flow in the near future, that report is expected to set the stage for the possibility of a new I-78 interchange where Adams Road crosses the interstate in western Lehigh County.

That new interchange would be about two miles west of the Route 100/I-78 interchange and more than eight miles west of the Route 222/I-78 interchange.

William Erdman, who serves as engineer for both townships, believes it would relieve future congestion at both interchanges – primarily because it would be used by tractor-trailers that serve huge warehouses and distribution facilities in the two townships.

Erdman said a new interchange might not be built for 15 or 20 years, but it is not too soon to start planning for it as a possible “ultimate solution” – despite the cost.

“We all know the problems with funding,” he said. “When you’re looking at major interchanges, you’re talking $20 million to $30 million.” He said such a project will require state and federal funding.

He said if the two existing interchanges are going to fail in the future because of too much traffic, “we’ve got to step back and say ‘what is the big solution here?’”
“If we don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen,” said Erdman. “If we begin to progress in that direction, hopefully it will be in place at the time it is needed.”
“From a planner’s perspective, 15 years out comes around pretty damn quick,” said Commissioner James Lancsek.

Doing the study is critical “so we get ahead of the curve,” said Commissioner Ron Eichenberg.

Erdman said the two townships are in an ideal location for distribution and logistics facilities near I-78, because of their proximity to “massive” populations in New Jersey and New York City. He said more of those buildings will be built in the future.

“We are ground zero for distribution,” said Eichenberg.

Erdman said the idea of an Adams Road/I-78 interchange was discussed several years ago. Trucks and other traffic would reach that new interchange via Grim Road and Nestle Way, two four-lane roads that cut through the heart of giant warehouse and distribution facilities in Upper Macungie.

Erdman called I-78, Hamilton Boulevard and Route 222 the main east-west roads through western Lehigh County. He said whenever a major accident occurs on I-78, traffic increases significantly on the other two roads.

He also noted the Route 100 and Route 222 interchanges are the only two access points along that stretch of I-78.

He said there is no immediate pressing issue at the two interchanges, but “far down the road” traffic congestion will increase at both.

He warned the Route 100/I-78 interchange already gets very congested and said “as that continues to get progressively worse,” more tractor-trailers and other vehicles will take the Route 222 bypass to get on I-78.

One of the biggest problems at the Route 222/I-78 interchange is that traffic – “particularly tractor-trailer traffic” -- coming off the Route 222 bypass has only one-eighth of a mile to get into the right lane to go east on I-78. At the same time, vehicles on Hamilton Boulevard may want to go left to turn into Dorney Park just beyond I-78.

“It’s kind of like Russian roulette as they’re trying to cross each other to get to the various lanes,” said Erdman.

He indicated problems might be reduced simply by changing timing on traffic lights.

Erdman said the joint report from the two townships will be submitted to PennDOT and the regional planning commission “to see where it goes from there.” He said the first stop for a major project such as a new I-78 interchange is the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study, which includes PennDOT and planning commission representatives. If LVTS endorses such a project, it would become part of a longer term plan, in line for future financing.

Resident Joseph Pugliese called the idea of adding another I-78 interchange “a dog chasing its tail.” He said it will just allow more warehouses to be built. Then Route 100 will get clogged again “and we’re back to the same problem. There has to be a different solution” He suggested one: “That traffic needs to be on rail.”

Resident Ron Beitler said: “Mr. Pugliese is dead-on correct.” He said: “The bypass of a bypass of a bypass is always just over the horizon.”

Resident Bob Rust commended the township for doing the Route 222/I-78 study, saying his wife is afraid to drive through there when traffic is heavy.

Rust also commended the township for looking at the bigger picture. “Rail is a very important thing, but we will continue to be driven by cars and trucks for a long while. That’s a reality we’ve got to deal with.”

Erdman said additional rail service could be part of the long-term solution to help relieve traffic pressure. Eichenberg wishes the township could get more rail service, but the “economics at this point in time, for whatever reason, are not working.” Erdman said if gasoline prices jump to $8 a gallon in the future, rail will become cost competitive.

The engineer said “not an awful lot of undeveloped land” is left in the area. He said much of land that still is undeveloped is in various stages of planning to be developed in the future. “It’s not that there are thousands of acres out there that are going to be developed with additional warehouses. But growth is going to continue, there’s no question about it. That’s unrelenting, no matter what we do.”