If there’s one answer that has the potential to frustrate Carlisle residents who bring concerns about streets and traffic to the borough council, it’s this: "It’s a state road."
The borough is crisscrossed by state roads that require PennDOT backing for changes, including changes as small as adding a sign.
“We have a lot of state roads and they happen to be the prominent roads,” borough manager Matt Candland said. “We pretty much have to get permission from PennDOT if we want to make any major changes to it.”
PennDOT spokesman Greg Penny, who retired this month, said that in general it is the municipality's responsibility to bring concerns to PennDOT's attention. Simple pavement problems such as potholes can be reported to the county maintenance office for repair. Traffic safety issues should be reported to the traffic unit, which would then conduct safety reviews.
Candland said the borough does studies on its own roads in response to residents’ complaints of speeding on a particular street to verify that there is a problem. Based on data it receives, it either takes unilateral action or approaches PennDOT to see what the agency will allow.
When residents on South College Street, for example, complained about speeding, especially at the intersection with Walnut Street where they said some serious accidents have occurred, potential relief efforts started with a PennDOT speed study to confirm the issue that the average speed in the area was 38 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone.
As a result, borough council first increased the "no parking" area around the intersection to improve sight distance. Lines were also painted on the road to provide visual narrowing of the street.
When those measures had only negligible results, PennDOT recommended installing reflected, flexible posts near three intersections on South College to provide further visual narrowing of the street that may result in the reduction of speeds at an estimated cost of $5,000.
The council decided to wait for further comments from PennDOT before proceeding with the installation of the poles. Penny said the agency is reviewing and evaluating the borough's study and its recommendations.
“We had to work all that through PennDOT. They’ve been cooperative, but it’s ultimately their decision,” Candland said.
Recently, borough councilwoman Brenda Landis urged her colleagues to look at options for slowing down traffic on South Hanover Street (Route 34) as it goes past Lamberton Middle School and on B Street as it passes by both Bellaire Elementary and Wilson Middle School.
The area, heavily traveled by students walking or biking to and from school, has a 35 mph speed limit. While speed limits in town are generally reasonable, Landis believes safety can be improved through this stretch of town.
The slower the traffic moves, the greater the field of vision for the driver and the lesser the chance of a pedestrian being killed in the event of a crash, she said.
The borough plans to conduct a traffic study on B Street to compile crash rates, using social media to caution drivers about the school zone, making North Middleton Township aware of the concerns and discussing bicycle or pedestrian or paths or additional crossing guards with the school district. As both are state roads, any concrete steps to mitigate speeding, including lowering the limit, would have to come through PennDOT, and the borough will reach out to the agency for suggestions.
"That’s the problem. If we want to make changes, if we want to try innovative approaches to solving issues, we always have to get their approval and they’re not always willing to give it,” Candland said.
In the end, PennDOT's control over the state roads comes down to the legal responsibility it holds as owner of the road because any inconsistency with standards and regulations can open the door for tort liability, Penny said.
"There are standards and regulations that must be followed. If a municipality wants to make changes, we need to be sure they meet those standards and regulations," he said.
There are benefits to PennDOT ownership of roads and bridges. Penny said PennDOT usually has more resources than municipalities to maintain roads and bridges and to repair or reconstruct them as necessary. PennDOT ownership also assures uniformity of the roads and signage as they cross municipal boundaries.
Municipalities that believe they can do a better job taking care of a state road can participate in a "turn back" program that returns the road to local control. Penny said that was more likely to happen with what PennDOT calls its four-digit lightly traveled roads, like South College Street, East North Street and the part of Walnut Bottom Road that passes through the borough, than with the more heavily traveled routes like Route 34, Route 74 and Route 641.
The borough and PennDOT are also working together, along with North Middleton Township, to address the perennial problem of trucks getting stuck under the Norfolk Southern bridge that carries traffic from Route 641 over to High Street (Route 11). PennDOT is reviewing signage and evaluating enhancements that could be implemented in the spring, Penny said.
Ultimately, though, trucks getting stuck is the fault of the drivers. PennDOT's role is to make sure the bridge and highways are properly signed to alert the drivers to the vertical clearance between the road surface and the bridge.
“We can encourage. We can ask. We can request, but we can’t necessarily take matters into our own hands and try and resolve the issue,” Candland said.