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The history of transportation for those living and traveling through downtown Carlisle in the 2000s can be divided into two eras through the lens of one major project: the road diet.

The road diet comes up when new road projects are announced, when traffic slows to a crawl on the main streets and at various times in between.

Almost eight years out from its completion, what can be said about the project?

Pre-road diet

Crews completed the road diet project in August 2011 after nearly four years of discussions and planning. The main feature of the project was reducing Hanover and High streets in downtown Carlisle from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction with a wide center lane and bike lanes sandwiched between parking spaces and the travel lanes.

The project also eliminated crosswalks at the alleys near the Square.

The project predated borough manager Matt Candland’s arrival in Carlisle, but it’s something he said he wishes he had taken part in. As a visitor to town and driving into work, he knew what downtown traffic was like in the pre-road diet era.

The objectives of the project were to calm traffic, make the downtown feel safer for pedestrians, reduce truck traffic and to reduce pollution and noise.

“If those were your objectives, I think it was a huge success,” he said.

There are, of course, those who disagree.

“Traffic is terrible in Carlisle to be blunt,” said Dave Hamilton of Burd’s Nest Brewing Company at 19 N. Hanover St., adding that traffic is bumper to bumper outside his window about 80 percent of the time.

A crash on Interstate 81 only compounds the problem, leaving people sitting for hours because there is no other way to get back on the highway, he said.

“It would help if we had at least one more lane per direction to increase flow. Right now, the downtown is acting as a Venturi (effect),” Hamilton said. The Venturi effect is the reduction in fluid pressure that results when a fluid flows through a constricted section (or choke) of a pipe.

Leslie Sterner hears similar opinions as the manager of the Carlisle Theatre at 40 W. High St.

“We do get complaints about the traffic downtown and the road diet. It is particularly bad, of course, when there is a shutdown on I-81,” she said.

Candland doesn’t hesitate to agree that capacity has been reduced on High and Hanover streets, but he asks people to remember what it was like to make a left turn when there were four lanes. The whole left lane would be held up as a driver waited for a space in the two opposing lines of traffic to make the turn. People stuck in line behind the car waiting to turn would get impatient and go around them in the right lane, only to switch back to the left, he said.

“It had a very unsettling, chaotic kind of feel, at least much more so than with the road diet. The road diet addressed those issues, but one of the downsides is that the capacity went down,” Candland said.

The road diet has been one way the borough has proactively worked to improve walkability and bikeability.

“I know people love to hate the bike lanes. They love to hate the road diet. That road diet is a wonderful thing. I’ve had two mirrors taken off my car when I used to park on High Street. That doesn’t happen anymore,” borough Councilwoman Brenda Landis said.

Since completion

“The road diet does work. You may not like it. It does work,” said Glenn White, executive director of the Downtown Carlisle Association. “It reaches the goals. It slows down traffic. It gets the downtown a little more livable, a lot safer in terms of doors being taken off, people being hit, close calls.”

He said it’s hard to draw direct parallels as to the road diet’s effect on downtown revitalization, but slowing traffic does make the area easier and safer to navigate. The less stressful driving environment also makes it easier for people to see what’s available in the downtown area.

“It gives you the opportunity to look around and explore,” he said.

According to the borough’s recently adopted comprehensive plan, travel time studies show mixed results for drivers. During the morning and midday peak travel times, Hanover Street traffic and traffic going west on High Street encountered steadier flow, meaning the average stopped delay was shorter after the road diet than before. Eastbound traffic on High Street was negatively affected during those time periods.

At evening rush hour, stopped delay was slower than earlier in the day, but Hanover Street and westbound High Street again showed improvement over the pre-road diet system. Eastbound High Street saw “a near 50 percent increase in travel time and a near doubling of stopped delay attributed to the signal’s priority for Hanover Street traffic and pedestrian use of a midblock crosswalk at Dickinson College,” according to the comprehensive plan.

Parking revenue has gone up dramatically since the road diet, which Candland said suggests more people want to come downtown.

Actual parking revenue for 2011 was $536,122, according to the borough’s 2017 budget book. In its 2019 budget book, the borough lists the actual parking revenue for 2017 as $692,334.

Controlled signalization has helped to alleviate congestion in the wake of the reduced capacity on the main streets, Candland said.

Unlike the timed system in the pre-road diet era, the lights downtown are controlled by algorithms that use data supplied by cameras at each intersection. The cameras are constantly monitoring and processing data from different intersections to give the priority for traffic flow to the main streets.

“It’s calculating all of what’s going on throughout the borough and trying to allocate access to the roads based on that information that it’s collecting,” he said.

With priority going to High and Hanover streets, other streets on the system are given a lower priority, which may make the light cycles seem slower to those on the side streets at certain times of the day.

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Even with the intelligent signalization system, traffic gets backed up between 7 and 8:30 a.m. and again from about 4 to 5:30 p.m. daily.

“That’s our rush hour. That’s when people are coming and going. It gets to a point when it overwhelms the system and you’re going to have some backups,” Candland said.

While the borough may put more of its traffic lights on the intelligent system, it has found reason to take at least one light off. The light at the intersection of West High Street and Orange Street is being taken off the system because it created problems due to its distance from the other lights in the system.

“That’s almost completely separate from downtown. It’s mainly dealing with the school and 641,” Candland said.

Future tweaks

In the years since the completion of the road diet, borough staff members have discussed ideas to tweak the system to make it more efficient.

One idea centered on the one-way alleys near the Square. The alleys are all one way, counterclockwise, meaning that drivers are making left turns into those alleys in a direction that limits the space available for a left turn lane going in the opposite direction.

Switching the alleys to be one way in a clockwise direction would switch potential left turns into a location that would not affect the lineup of cars in the left turn lane at the Square, and would allow that left turn lane to be extended past the alleys, Candland said.

“Instead of queuing two or three cars, you could queue five or six cars,” he said.

Another option is to ban left turns into the alleys, which would also allow the extension of the left turn lane at the Square. Just how far back that would stretch would be up to engineers, Candland said.

Borough staff has also considered potentially eliminating parking spaces on East Pomfret Street and on East South Street near their intersections with South Hanover Street to create a lane to allow cars to make right turns onto South Hanover Street or pass straight through the intersection when a car is trying to make a left turn.

Sterner agreed that the intersection of Pomfret and South Hanover streets is a particularly frustrating intersection.

“If you are on Pomfret Street and there is someone making a left turn in ahead of you, you can sit there through several lights before you get through,” she said.

Candland said the proposed fix needs more discussion.

“Whenever you talk about eliminating parking, we really take a hard look at it and make sure the benefits are there,” he said.

“The road diet does work. You may not like it. It does work. It reaches the goals. It slows down traffic. It gets the downtown a little more livable, a lot safer in terms of doors being taken off, people being hit, close calls.” — Glenn White, executive director of the Downtown Carlisle Association

“The road diet does work. You may not like it. It does work. It reaches the goals. It slows down traffic. It gets the downtown a little more livable, a lot safer in terms of doors being taken off, people being hit, close calls.” — Glenn White, executive director of the Downtown Carlisle Association

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Email Tammie at tgitt@cumberlink.com. Follow her on Twitter @TammieGitt.

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