Projects to limit West Shore traffic congestion and improve Capital Area Transit bus service featured significantly in a recently approved 25-year three-county plan for using some of an estimated $3.4 billion in state and federal funding.
The Harrisburg Area Transportation Study, a planning entity for Cumberland, Perry and Dauphin counties, approves a new long-range Regional Transportation Plan every four years, ranking transportation projects without currently allocated federal or state funding, based on their benefit to the community.
The new plan strikes a “balanced approach” between improving traffic conditions and supporting bus transit, bicycling and other transportation alternatives in the region, says Kirk Stoner, Cumberland County planning director.
The plan includes some good news for local residents tired of being stuck in traffic: the number of vehicles traveling the region’s roads actually decreased by 6.4 percent from 2009 to 2013, the plan said. However, the projects list includes several multi-million-dollar efforts to reduce traffic congestion on the West Shore.
“In terms of congestion, obviously the West Shore is our most congested area, and one of our areas of need,” Stoner said.
Ranking fifth among projects without current funding allocations is a proposed $684,950 in improvements to Simpson Ferry Road and Wesley Drive/Sheely Lane in Lower Allen Township to reduce congestion and improve pedestrian infrastructure. Others projects on the list include:
• Lower Allen Township — about $1.7 million to improve three intersection that involve Lisburn Road, about $1.3 million in Gettysburg Road corridor improvements, about $1 million to improve Gettysburg Road intersections with Slate Hill Road/Locust Street and St. Johns Road, and about $1 million for other signalized intersection upgrades in the township
• East Pennsboro Township — about $4.4 million for a center turn lane for Wertzville Road and about $4.2 million to widen Wertzville Road from Valley Road to East Penn Drive
• Hampden Township — about $600,000 in upgrades to three Carlisle Pike intersections with Sporting Hill Road, St. Johns Church Road, and Central Boulevard and Orrs Bridge Road, an about $3.5 million realignment of the Carlisle Pike and Central Boulevard/Orrs Bridge Road intersection, and an about $900,000 central turning lane on Sporting Hill Road between Trindle Road and the Carlisle Pike.
While the study includes ways to reduce traffic congestion, it also gave high rankings to projects that promote alternative modes of transportation, such as buses and bicycling.
“We shouldn’t just look at adding capacity, we should be looking at giving people alternative transportation opportunities,” said Craig Layne, a spokesman for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which is the lead staffing agency for the transportation study.
Projects to improve Capital Area Transit’s bus service took three of the top four spots among projects that do not currently have a funding allocation. One would help CAT explore regional bus routes to move away from the “hub-and-spoke” model of service focused on Harrisburg. Others would create a rapid bus route across a repaired version of the CAT-owned Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge across the Susquehanna and upgrade CAT’s downtown Harrisburg transfer center, Layne said.
Bill Jones, CAT’s general manager, supports all three concepts. The two-county transportation agency recently created a Carlisle circulator bus route and will soon be operating a new West Shore route, but studies to develop more regional routes are needed, he said.
A bus route over the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge that could avoid downtown traffic would likely be very popular and would “give public transportation a leg up in the community,” he said. The creation of a “true transfer center” in Harrisburg would also improve service, since the current center is not large enough to allow buses to wait for transferring customers, he said.
While Jones thinks those are good ideas, he said he’s not convinced that they should be top priorities. They are expensive — the estimated tab comes to approximately $8.6 million for all three projects combined — so Jones wants to better study the public’s desires before embarking on their completion.
“I think we need to connect with the communities and say, ‘what do they need?’” he said.
A new maintenance facility sought by CAT ranked 10th on the list of proposed projects. Jones and PennDOT officials said in November that a previously proposed public-private partnership for a maintenance facility in Susquehanna Township would not happen in its current form.
The inclusion of a project on the plan is no guarantee it will ever be funded, Layne said. Yet, Stoner said he uses it on a “weekly, if not daily basis” to help guide him in making Cumberland County planning decisions and evaluating projects.
“It’s a huge task, and I think it was done very well, and it’s a great plan to guide us through 2040,” he said.
The actual amount of ranked projects dropped from 96 in the plan approved four years ago to 64 in this plan because the transportation study is now requiring municipal support to include a project, Layne said. Projects are ranked on 13 criteria that include economic vitality, improving quality of life and the environment, and the social benefit to disadvantaged populations that are particularly dependent on improved transportation.
The plan also emphasized a desire for improvement pedestrian and bicycle travel, and one of the highest-ranked projects was the creation of an about $18 million grade-separated crossing for the old Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge to place Norfolk Southern train routes on a different level than a potential busway. The project would be necessary if CAT proceeds with plans to use the bridge for bus rapid transit, but even without that, more modest improvements could be made to make the bridge safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, Layne said.
Bridge projects on the list included the replacement or improvement projects at Leidigh Bridge in Monroe Township, Beechcliff Drive Bridge and Sample Bridge in Silver Spring Township and Spangler Mill Road bridges in Lower Allen Township.
The plan projects $3.4 billion in state and federal revenues for transportation projects over 25 years, an increase over the $2.7 billion projected four years ago, Layne said. That increase is likely partially due to the 2013 passage of a state transportation funding bill, he said.
This article has been modified to correct information regarding proposed projects in Hampden Township.