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Townships take first steps toward new I-78 interchange in western Lehigh County

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 20 2013 06:49:05 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 21 2013 10:32:19 AM CDT
Interstate 78 - Route 100 interchange

Randy Kraft

UPPER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

A new interchange on Interstate 78 might be the ultimate solution to reduce future traffic congestion in western Lehigh County.

That interchange could be built where Adams Road now passes over I-78, about two miles west of the Route 100 interchange.

Its primary purpose would reduce heavy tractor-trailer traffic at the busy Route 100/I-78 interchange. But it also should reduce traffic congestion on Hamilton Boulevard and the Route 222 bypass.

Traffic around the I-78/ Route 100 interchange “is a nightmare and it’s only getting worse, because more and more development is occurring,” predicted William Erdman, project manager at Keystone Consulting Engineers.

“There’s only one solution out here in this area and that’s a new interchange.”

Erdman said construction of a new interchange may be 10 or 20 years away but indicated it’s time to take steps to anticipate future traffic needs.

A joint effort is being initiated by Upper and Lower Macungie townships to improve traffic flow, explained Erdman, who is the engineer for both townships.

As a first step, Upper Macungie has nearly completed a traffic enhancement study to determine what improvements, if any, can be made on six-lane-wide Route 100 at I-78.

On Thursday night, Lower Macungie commissioners will vote on doing a similar $10,000 study at the Hamilton Boulevard/I-78 interchange, which is more than six miles away from the Route 100 interchange.

Because all the interchanges involve state roads, Erdman said the studies done in the two townships will be combined into one report that will be presented to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The intent of both studies is to determine if any traffic flow improvements can be done around both I-78 interchanges.

By looking at every possible alternative, said Erdman, the report that results from those studies will set the stage for a future interchange west of Route 100 “as the only real solution in this area.”

He said a new interchange may be needed even if improvements are made around both existing interchanges, if traffic congestion continues to build.

But Erdman stressed the studies are not being done for the sole purpose of going to PennDOT and saying “put in an interchange,” which would cost millions of dollars.

Tractor trailer traffic is a major contributor to the increasing congestion. They service huge warehouse/distribution facilities concentrated around the I-78/Route 100 interchange, as well as other “big boxes” farther south off Route 100 in Lower Macungie. More of those facilities will be built in the future.

If that Route 100/I-78 interchange becomes too congested, trucks leaving both townships may start looking for other ways to reach I-78. That could mean they will go east on Route 222 or Hamilton Boulevard to get on the interstate.

Erdman said trucks coming north from Lower Macungie to a new interchange would turn off Routes 100/222 and take Grim Road and Nestle Way, both four-lane roads, to Adams Road. He said most tractor-trailers head east on I-78, toward New York or New Jersey.

Erdman said I-78, Hamilton Boulevard and the Route 222 bypass are the three major east-west traffic corridors through western Lehigh County.

He explained traffic in each township affects the other township and “problems on one corridor will impact the other corridors.” For example, if I-78 is closed because of an accident, traffic increases on Route 222 and Hamilton Boulevard.

Erdman maintained adding that interchange in Upper Macungie will reduce traffic pressure on the Route 222 bypass and Hamilton Boulevard, which will benefit Lower Macungie. He called it “a ripple effect.”

“It’s truck traffic we’re most concerned about,” said Erdman. “We want to keep it on I-78 as much as possible. That will help the rest of the townships.”

But he added all vehicles, not just big trucks, are going to take “the path of least resistance.”

The planned Hamilton Crossings shopping center -- with a Costco, Target and other stores -- will put more car traffic on Hamilton Boulevard and Route 222 when it opens by 2015 between those roads in Lower Macungie.

Cost of a new interchange

Erdman said the idea of a new I-78 interchange first showed up “quite a few years ago” in a traffic study done for Upper Macungie Township. He said PennDOT officials also once talked about putting a rest stop in that area, and the possibility of combining both projects was discussed. “For some reason it never went anywhere.”

He said a new I-78 interchange would be built by the state and federal governments, at a cost of $25 million to $30 million. He said such a project would be well beyond the ability of the townships to finance.

Spokesmen for PennDOT and the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission said they have heard about the proposal for that I-78 interchange. Both raised a major barrier to such an interchange ever being built: no money.

PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said the state does not even have enough money to maintain its existing network of highways, bridges and interchanges, “let alone expanding that network. We have a backlog of state bridges that are structurally deficient. We would love to get those off that structural deficient list.”

LVPC executive director Michael Kaiser said he’s heard nothing about an Adams Road/I-78 interchange for several years. “There was no money for it at the time and there is no money for it now.” He said that project is not listed on either a four-year or long-range plan for transportation improvements needed in the Lehigh Valley.

Young said to qualify for state and federal funds, the proposed interchange would have to be listed on the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study’s plan of long-term projects. He said an alternative would be for the private sector for pay for such an interchange

Erdman realizes no funding may be available in the foreseeable future, but that could change 10 years from now.

He said similar preliminary joint traffic studies funded by the two townships and Lehigh County helped jump-start the creation of the Route 222 bypass. “PennDOT stepped in and said ‘we’ll do the design and construct it’.”

Hamilton Boulevard

Erdman said no monumental problems are around the Hamilton Boulevard/I-78 interchange now “but we’re looking way down the road and saying: ‘What is the long term solution in this area?’”

He said the biggest problem at that interchange is “traffic weaving movements in short distances.”

He explained a truck heading toward Allentown on Route 222 quickly must weave to the right, where Route 222 merges with Hamilton Boulevard, to get onto eastbound I-78. And someone coming toward the city on Hamilton Boulevard may want to get in the left lane to enter Dorney Park beyond the I-78 interchange.

Erdman said Keystone’s traffic engineers have some ideas “of a couple of tweaks that might be done” to improve traffic flow in that area.

He explained if Lower Macungie does make improvements at I-78 and Hamilton Boulevard, it then can say to PennDOT: “We’ve looked at this. This is well beyond our capacity.”

Lower Macungie

After Erdman made a presentation about the future interchange to the Lower Macungie township commissioners’ planning committee on March 14, its two members – commissioners Douglas Brown and James Lancsek -- recommended all five commissioners approve doing the study Thursday night.

Erdman estimated the study will take three to six months to complete.

He assured the commissioners that Lower Macungie will not be obligated to spend millions of dollars to help pay for a new interchange on I-78 in Upper Macungie. He said the interchange would be a future PennDOT project.

Lower Macungie Resident Garrett Rhoads, who was at that committee meeting, was skeptical about a new intersection, saying truck drivers will take the shortest route if most are going east, as Erdman said they will. “I’m not going to go north and then west so I can proceed south and east,” said Rhoads.

But Alan Fornwalt of Keystone Engineering, who works with Erdman, said truck drivers will take the quickest route, even if it is longer. He said a new intersection will be less congested than Route 100. He also said not many more improvements can be made on that section of Route 100.

Erdman said the $10,000 to pay for the Lower Macungie study will come from traffic impact fees that have been collected from developers. He said the township has about $169,000 in that impact fee account.

He noted that $10,000 doesn’t include the cost of making any improvements “because we don’t even know what they are at this point.”