I-81 crash

Emergency crews closed Interstate 81 north after a crash on April 13.

Is congestion on Interstate 81 a significant damper on local business? Probably, according to a recent survey, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how to fix it, or pay for fixing it.

The Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce conducted a member survey last month regarding issues with the I-81 corridor, getting responses from roughly 80 local businesses.

As is often the case when I-81 is discussed, the most obvious solution is putting in a third lane of traffic, even if that has proven to be a pipe dream.

“That is a great solution, especially when you have heavily mixed traffic like you do in Pennsylvania with the high truck volume,” said Andy Alden with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, who serves as the executive director of the I-81 Corridor Coalition.

“Unfortunately, it’s just unlikely that anyone in the near future is going to have enough money to put a third lane into that roadway,” said Alden, who met with Carlisle Chamber members last month.

The chamber survey found that roughly half of local businesses have no alternative plan in case of traffic on major local roads – although not every business said that closures or congestion have negatively impacted them.

Out of several problem spots listed in the Carlisle Chamber survey, 56.5 percent of businesses said the Hanover Street interchange made it difficult for employees to travel.

When asked how transportation infrastructure improvements should be funded, 40.2 percent of those surveyed preferred General Fund revenues. Favorability of a per-mile tax was at 23.8 percent, and a higher fuel tax at 17.9 percent.

Pennsylvania, it should be noted, already has one of the highest gas taxes in the nation – however, a significant portion of these dollars go to the Pennsylvania State Police, given the relatively low level of support from general revenues to state law enforcement.

The Carlisle Chamber also asked businesses if they would be willing to provide financial support to a public-private partnership for road improvements. Only 8.9 percent answered a definitive “yes” – 52.5 percent were unsure.

A public-private partnership, Alden said, is what the I-81 Corridor Coalition is trying to move toward. Such partnerships generally involve corporate backers funding public infrastructure in exchange for a stake in the operations and revenues associated.

How this would be done with regard to a highway is not yet clear, Alden said, but there is considerable interest.

“Right now we’ve got companies like Proctor and Gamble, Volvo, and others who want to support us, but our current model doesn’t allow for that,” Alden said.

The coalition would like to focus on the entirety of I-81, from Tennessee to New York, Alden said. The cost of widening the entire interstate would be enormous, he noted, and widening portions is not a perfect solution.

“All you’re really doing is moving the congestion down the road a few miles,” Alden said. “We’d rather work with all the transportation departments in the states to get something that could be more universal.”

The coalition currently has two proposals out that would seek funding for an information network—a system that would tie in weather, traffic and truck volume reports from all of the states.

This would help truckers and companies better plan their routes and transit times, Alden said, and would also serve to help truckers find available overnight parking.

This latter issue is potentially a major cause of congestion, Alden noted, since I-81 has a dearth of overnight parking relative to its truck volume. Truckers are often cutting their days short to get parked before spaces fill, or keeping unsustainable schedules that cause drowsy driving and collisions.

“We’re just not providing adequate sleep facilities for these drivers, and I think that is fueling a lot of the congestion and unpredictability,” Alden said.

The coalition is looking to the Appalachian Regional Commission, a state and federal partnership that funds public projects in the Appalachian belt, for potential partnership and assistance—particularly in the creation of additional truck rest areas, Alden said.

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Cumberland County/Investigative Reporter

Reporter for The Sentinel.