The Morning Call (Sunday)

Plans in the works to improve Route 22

- By Evan Jones

The idea of widening Route 22 through the Lehigh Valley has been around for more than 50 years as traffic engineers have fretted about the road’s ability to handle an ever-increasing amount of traffic while commuters fumed about increasing travel times.

Despite a bunch of improvemen­ts over the years, the highway — also known as the Lehigh Valley Thruway since it opened in 1954 — still carries four lanes of traffic with a narrow center median marked by a Jersey barrier. Slowdowns are common, especially between Cedar Crest Boulevard in South Whitehall Township and Airport Road in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.

More than 100,000 cars, trucks and buses use the highway on a daily basis. By comparison, Interstate 78 averages more than 60,000 trips per day.

PennDOT District 5 spokespers­on Ron Young says patience will be a virtue, but changes are, indeed, on the drawing board.

“It’s the main artery of the region,” Young said, “and we want to do whatever we can to improve things. There are people who have patience and we know things don’t move quickly, due to the number of complicati­ons involved in a major project like this. But we are pursuing improvemen­ts along the corridor.”

Lehigh Valley Planning Commission Executive Director Becky Bradley described Route 22 as “the spine” of the Lehigh Valley. With extensive developmen­t along Route 22, she said maintainin­g and improving the road will help keep it close instead of developers looking for empty land further away from the highway.

“You’ve probably heard of this term ‘you build it and they will come?’ “Bradley said. “The truth is, if we don’t want to build on greenfield­s, we have to keep developmen­t alongside our infrastruc­ture that can be improved and capacity added to in order to keep it from going further and further out and put more and more pressure on these smaller roads.”

Securing funds

That’s why state Sen. Nick Miller has secured $1 million in PennDOT funding for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission to update the Route 22 corridor study, which was first published in 2001.

“A lot of work is being done to invest in U.S. Route 22, like the recent replacing and widening of the Lehigh Bridge and resurfacin­g throughout the route in the Lehigh Valley, but I acknowledg­e and understand the frustratio­n of our residents over the delays in widening the route to three lanes in both directions” said Miller, D-Lehigh/ Northampto­n.

“Since taking office in January, I have advocated for and secured the funding to complete a full study on the cost and impact of widening Route 22. The widening of this route, the Lehigh Valley’s infrastruc­ture backbone, is essential for our community members to have some relief in their daily travels, especially with the substantia­l increase in truck traffic. I will continue to urgently support investing in this project and bringing dollars back to the district so we can ensure this project’s success.”

Improvemen­ts are certainly in the Lehigh Valley’s Draft Long-Range Transporta­tion Plan, which will likely be adopted in October. It has more than $172 million slated for widening between 15th Street to Airport Road. About $34.2 million in funding is for the stretch between the Lehigh River and Airport Road that is slated for 2029-36 and $138 million is for the entire stretch for between 203650.

While a six-lane highway through the Valley is the shiny object for many, Bradley says a lot has already been accomplish­ed. About $166 million has been invested in the past decade, she said.

“A lot has been done on 22, and it’s really about maintainin­g and improving the infrastruc­ture,” she said.

That includes $93.7 million to renovate and widen the Lehigh River Bridge; $15.2 million to improve the bridge and ramps at the interchang­e at MacArthur Road/Seventh Street; and $57 million in maintenanc­e and resurfacin­g.

The LVPC also pushed for and achieved extra lanes between the Route 22/Interstate 78 split and Route 100 in Upper Macungie Township.

“A lot of it was tied to the money,” Bradley said. “That’s what makes things possible whether we want to accept that or not. That’s just the reality of how transporta­tion funding works. You have to have money to do stuff, and you have to maintain the system first. So I think really what we’re looking at right now and where we should approach Senator Miller and Secretary [Michael] Carroll at PennDOT.”

Six lanes, just not all the way

If you’re looking for six lanes on Route 22 between Upper Macungie and Easton, that’s not going to happen.

The area that would likely be widened is the stretch on the long-range plan. The third lane eastbound would begin at the 15th Street onramp and end at the Airport Road South offramp, according to Young. The westbound third lane would mirror that.

“We are moving forward on some projects to widen, so people don’t get the impression that that’s not still being planned,” Young said.

Young said some of the preliminar­y infrastruc­ture improvemen­ts needed for six lanes have been completed, such as the Lehigh River Bridge and the stretch between MacArthur Road and Fullerton Avenue.

“We’re looking at breaking all that future work into three projects because of the way the budgeting is,” Young said. “There’s just not a big lump sum to do it all at once. Breaking it down and doing three projects over several budget periods, then it’s easier to pay for these things.

“There’s no way we can do it all at once,” he said. “Money would be taken away from any other projects in the region that are also needed.”

Young said the first part of the project will be the Fullerton interchang­e, which will include putting in a new bridge at Fifth Street. He said the plan is to put out contracts in mid- to late 2027.

“We anticipate the other projects coming staggered over two to three years,” he said. “After that, we’ll let the second project in an additional two to three years. We’ll then let the third project.”

What else is coming?

The widening project will bring yet another change to the MacArthur Road interchang­e that carries Route 145 over the highway. Young said the interchang­e will be redesigned and feature the first diverging diamond interchang­e in the Lehigh Valley.

This type of interchang­e will have the north and southbound lanes on Route 145 crossing over each other and back, allowing vehicles getting on Route 22 to do so without having to make a left turn across the opposite lane. The closest such interchang­e to the Valley is the one between Routes 222 and 322 in Ephrata, Lancaster County.

“We’re not replacing the bridge that was replaced not that long ago, but we’re redesignin­g the interchang­e into what we call a diverging diamond interchang­e,” he said. “It’s kind of unusual for most people, but they work very efficientl­y to move multiple lanes of traffic.”

Other projects coming up for Route 22 include interchang­e improvemen­ts at Route 191 in Bethlehem Township and attempts to reduce the highway’s carbon footprint.

Members of the LVPC have expressed concern about the 191 exit because of ramps with sharp curves. With proposed warehouses in nearby Lower Nazareth Township, the ramps could be hazardous to tractor-trailers.

“What’s the condition of the infrastruc­ture?” Bradley said. “I think 191 is a really good example because that money was already being allocated out for it because it’s an old interchang­e that was designed when we didn’t have as many cars and speeds were a lot slower. So we’ve been looking at that and we have to go through that for the whole corridor.”

Another program is carbon farming, which the LVPC is looking to implement along busy highways in the region, including Route 22, that will be part of shrinking emissions in upcoming years. The plan includes planting lush, green foliage that will not only help clean the air, but also make the driving experience a little more pleasant.

“We could really plant that up to reduce carbon, to take carbon out of the atmosphere to make our air quality a little bit healthier, especially in a transporta­tion corridor where your vehicles are emitting a lot of carbon emissions, make it look nice or provide for pollinatio­n,” Bradley said. “Migratory birds utilize the highway network as part of their travel patterns. So it has some benefits that you wouldn’t necessaril­y think of when you start to look at green infrastruc­ture solutions, in addition to hard infrastruc­ture solutions.”

At the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Sustainabi­lity Summit in April, Bradley said community surveys conducted by the LVPC have found consistent support for environmen­tal initiative­s.

The LVPC is putting together a carbon reduction plan and has received $67.1 million from the Infrastruc­ture Investment and Jobs Act to help accomplish this goal. The organizati­on recently received an additional $1 million from the federal Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program.

 ?? APRIL GAMIZ/THE MORNING CALL ?? Traffic packs Route 22 in Whitehall Township on Oct. 4.
APRIL GAMIZ/THE MORNING CALL Traffic packs Route 22 in Whitehall Township on Oct. 4.

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