The grand total for widening Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania, from Maryland to I-78, is pushing $3 billion according to the latest highway study revision by PennDOT.
The new findings were presented Tuesday afternoon at a meeting organized by the Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce, where public officials and business leaders discussed the lack, thus far, of a solid path forward to fund widening of the increasingly congested interstate.
“We need to get past the studies and on to action,” said Kirk Stoner, Cumberland County’s planning director. “We need to get organized now. We can’t let that apathy set in again.”
Stoner said there was a distinct sense that too little had been done since PennDOT’s initial analysis of the I-81 congestion problem in 2005.
The updated study shows congestion worsening, albeit in fits and starts. A third lane of traffic in both directions will be needed by 2030 to maintain what PennDOT considers to be acceptable levels of service, estimated PennDOT District 8 Engineer Mike Keiser.
This varies depending on where one is on the interstate, at what time of day.
“Overall, that window of the day where you have comfort on the interstate is going to continue to shrink,” Keiser said.
PennDOT conducted traffic turn counts at four interchanges in the District 8 region, which covers the stretch of I-81 through Franklin, Cumberland, Dauphin, and Lebanon counties, Keiser said. Cumberland County’s Exit 44, which has seen rapid warehouse growth along its intersecting roads, has a 200 percent higher turn load than it did in 2005, Keiser said.
Cumberland County alone has seen 40 deaths in the past seven years on I-81, Stoner said.
The overall rate of crashes per miles traveled is up about 14 percent, Keiser said, although PennDOT found that the ratio of crashes involving tractor-trailers was down from 60 percent of crashes in 2005 to 35 percent in 2018.
Commuter traffic seems to be accounting for a larger portion of collisions and delays, with some relief provided by piecemeal widening projects, such as the $21 million installation of third lanes just south of the Route 581 interchange.
“Those projects have helped with the morning commute but are nowhere near where we need to be long-term,” Keiser said.
The most critical section that needs widening is between Exit 44 and Exit 52, Keiser said, but this would cost about $360 million. Barring any drastic action, piecemeal improvements will likely continue to be the name of the game.
Even after Act 89 of 2013 reconfigured Pennsylvania’s gas tax and created a dedicated transportation infrastructure fund, the state’s entire annual construction spend is still only about $2.4 billion. Federal aid to state highways is also largely dependent on gas taxes, which haven’t been raised since 1993. Pennsylvania is looking at about $7.2 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs by next year, Keiser said.
Talk in Washington of a major infrastructure stimulus expenditure, a major campaign talking point of President Donald Trump, seems to have fallen by the wayside.
“If we’re stuck in the current funding environment, it’s going to look different than if there’s funding movement at the federal level,” Keiser said.
If local officials and businesses are planning to wait for a singular infusion of federal cash to widen the interstate all at once, they’re likely to meet with disappointment, Stoner said.
This is doubly so, given that state and federal infrastructure dollars are dependent on gas taxes at a time when public and private agencies are trying to reduce their gasoline consumption, Stoner said.
“We’re trying to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels at the same time our revenues are dependent on increased use of fossil fuels,” Stoner said.
That leaves the question of how state and local authorities can come up with a long-term funding model.
Pennsylvania has yet to put out anything concrete, but Virginia has started to do so, and it’s goal is nearly the same, seeking to do $2.2 billion worth of work to the Virginia stretch of I-81 over the next 7 to 10 years, according to state reports.
“There are a lot of parallels between Pennsylvania and Virginia right now, which is why I want to see them work closer together,” said Andy Alden, a transportation researcher at Virginia Tech who heads the I-81 Corridor Coalition.
Last month, the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board also issued an update to its I-81 improvement plan, one that included possible numbers on how to pay for the work.
Virginia planners floated two options, or a combination there of: an add-on to retail sales and liquid fuel taxes in the corridor jurisdictions, as well as tolls to be imposed on vehicles. Those tolls would likely be weighted heavily toward trucks, with commuter cars being able to purchase a yearly pass to use the interstate for a flat fee, whereas commercial trucks would pay a higher per-mile rate.
Virginia’s plan also incorporates another aspect of interstate improvement that Pennsylvania has been catching on to: the lack of truck parking along I-81.
“We know that we are far, far short of the parking that’s needed along the interstates,” Keiser said.
Truck drivers, under federal regulation, are now subject to electronic logging of how many hours they’ve been on the road without a break. This seems to have exacerbated the issue of truckers scrambling to find a place park their rig once they’re hitting their legal limit of road time.
Pennsylvania wrapped up a request-for-information process last month in which the state sought proposals from investors on possible public-private partnership ventures to create truck parking facilities.
Highway freight in Pennsylvania was estimated at 867 million tons in 2011, according to the state, and is projected to hit 1.5 billion tons per year by 2040.