It is long past time for action on expanding the capacity of I-81 in Cumberland County, and, frankly, throughout the region. There is no denying that ever-increasing traffic volume, combined with rising congestion, has resulted in more traffic jams, more accidents, and more and more traffic injuries and deaths.
In Cumberland County alone, over just the past half dozen years, wrecks on I-81 have claimed the lives of 36 people. On average, crashes total 270 on I-81 just in Cumberland County each year.
Of course, bad driving habits, like speeding and tailgating, are contributing factors.
But, without a doubt, so too is the simple fact that I-81 needs to be expanded to three lanes in both directions from I-78 in Lebanon County the whole way to the Maryland border.
The recent widening of a small, 2-mile section of I-81 in our county, between the interchanges with I-581 and Route 114 has brought some much needed, albeit modest, relief.
But, the situation in and around the five exits on the two lane sections of I-81 in the Carlisle area, has only worsened, as an ongoing rash of crashes demonstrates.
The truth is, I-81 — as a major corridor for our entire nation’s interstate commerce — needs to be prioritized for capacity expansion to meet the traffic needs of both today and tomorrow.
And, our federal elected officials, in particular, need to stop talking about infrastructure investment and start acting to provide for it.
Truck volume, most of it interstate commerce, has tripled on I-81 over the past 30 years. As much as one third of the traffic on I-81 is trucks, double the 15 percent that was anticipated when I-81 was first constructed.
As such, this is a national issue that requires a federal response.
In the meantime, it’s also been 13 years since PennDOT completed its own 2005 contracted study that recommended the widening of I-81 “as necessary to achieve an acceptable level of service” to handle projected traffic volumes.
And, yet, to date, it’s not even on PennDOT’s 12 year transportation improvement plan. It’s long past time that it be added; at least the design and engineering phases as a start.
As noted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Pennsylvania’s enactment of Act 89 five years ago — which has provided significant additional dollars for road and bridge maintenance and repair — “was a good first step” but simply inadequate to meet the need for capacity expansion and redesign of substandard interchanges.
“Without construction of new roadways and lanes to increase capacity,” the ASCE wrote, “Pennsylvania’s roadways will continue to create congestion and delays” costing Pennsylvania’s drivers “over $3.7 billion per year in lost time and wasted fuel.”
We are encouraged by the interest and support of the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce and our business community in general, and we also note the recent action of the 40-municipal member Capital Region Council of Governments (CapCOG) supporting this initiative after our board passed a resolution urging action for safety improvements and capacity expansion on I-81.
This is about our region’s future. This is about our economy.
But, most importantly, this is about public safety.
It’s time for our federal elected officials — both parties — to stop kicking the can down the road on the critical need for a major infrastructure investment plan. The time for talk is at an end. The time for action is now.
Vince DiFilippo, Jim Hertzler, Gary Eichelberger are Cumberland County Commissioners.