Long-range plan for road­work OK’d

Early dis­putes over cuts qui­etly re­solved

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Short­ell

The Le­high Val­ley Trans­porta­tion Study unan­i­mously ap­proved its $2.4 bil­lion lon­grange trans­porta­tion plan Wed­nes­day morn­ing, avoid­ing the po­lit­i­cal knife-fight­ing threat­ened in Au­gust when the draft plan was re­leased.

The long-range plan, which is up­dated ev­ery four years, ef­fec­tively func­tions as a to-do list for the re­gion’s trans­porta­tion net­work through 2045.

While the plan does not al­lo­cate money, projects have to be on the plan to be el­i­gi­ble for fed­eral fund­ing. Be­cause the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pays for 80% of most ma­jor road projects, be­ing on the list is crit­i­cal.

Ten­sions were high when the long-range plan’s draft was re

leased in Au­gust. Ear­lier that month, Pen­nDOT an­nounced it was di­vert­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from re­gional state roads to in­vest in the in­ter­state sys­tem, which has been un­der­funded for years. The shift meant the Le­high Val­ley is pro­jected to lose $380 mil­lion over the next 12 years, mak­ing in­clu­sion on the long-range plan even more com­pet­i­tive than usual.

Amend­ments to the fi­nal plan in­clude a study on po­ten­tial traf­fic sig­nal im­prove­ments on Sul­li­van Trail in Forks Town­ship, im­prove­ments to Amer­i­can Park­way in Al­len­town, an up­grade of the in­ter­sec­tion of Route 512 and Mill Street to in­clude turn lanes and a bet­ter traf­fic light, and line items to ad­dress emer­gency projects that could pop up.

Pen­nDOT Dis­trict 5 Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Michael Re­bert said the prices of some bridge projects set to be­gin decades from now were in­ten­tion­ally set high in the draft to an­tic­i­pate ris­ing costs. Some of those es­ti­mates were scaled back, in­clud­ing the Pine Street Bridge over the Le­high River. The pro­ject was orig­i­nally slated for $88.9 mil­lion but now car­ries a $70 mil­lion es­ti­mate.

But even with the changes, the long-range plan does not an­tic­i­pate fund­ing for $4.3 bil­lion of projects. Le­high County Di­rec­tor of Gen­eral Ser­vices Rick Molchany stressed those projects could still get done if unan­tic­i­pated money, such as a gas tax hike from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or an un­ex­pected grant, comes along.

Projects on the long-range plan but listed as un­funded in­clude con­vert­ing the in­ter­sec­tion of Route 222 and Lin­coln Av­enue in South White­hall Town­ship into a round­about and paving Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Al­len­town. While the long-range plan in­cluded widen­ing Route 22 be­tween 15th Street and Route 512, widen­ing sec­tions be­tween Route 512 and Route 33 and from Route 309 to 15th Street were listed as un­funded.

The loss in fund­ing came at a worse time than usual. Le­high and Northamp­ton coun­ties, which rep­re­sent the re­gion’s bor­oughs and town­ships on the study, stepped up their out­reach to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary with the goal of get­ting more trans­porta­tion needs ad­dressed. The end re­sult was more projects pro­posed but less money to ad­dress them.

But Re­bert said the study was able to reach a con­sen­sus over the last six weeks.

“I think we came to the con­clu­sion we did the best we could with the money al­lo­cated,” Re­bert said.

Beth­le­hem Di­rec­tor of Plan­ning Dar­lene Heller ac­knowl­edged some of the ten­sions that arose in Au­gust, say­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the coun­ties and cities were led to be­lieve they would have a chance to re­view the pro­pos­als be­fore the draft was re­leased. While she would have pre­ferred they were brought into the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process sooner, those promised de­bates and con­ver­sa­tions with the com­mu­nity took place over the last few weeks.

“There was a lot of hours and be­hind-the-scenes work put in. Ev­ery mu­nic­i­pal­ity that wanted to have in­put did,” Heller said.

Northamp­ton County Ex­ec­u­tive La­mont McClure was a loud critic, ar­gu­ing that Northamp­ton County was get­ting short shrift in the plan. He said Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon he was sat­is­fied with amend­ments to the plan, which freed up $60 mil­lion for bridges in the county. Among those is the coun­ty­owned bridge out of Hugh Moore Park over the Nor­folk South­ern rail­road. The bridge has been closed for years, but the chal­lenges of re­plac­ing a small bridge over an ac­tive rail­road have pre­vented re­pairs. In ad­di­tion, Pen­nDOT ver­bally com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing the in­ter­change of Route 191 and Route 22 in Beth­le­hem Town­ship.

“Is this per­fect? No. Is it even close to be­ing eq­ui­table? No, but I need to work within the sys­tem,” McClure said. He said his pro­posed 2020 bud­get, which he will re­lease Thurs­day, does not in­clude a fund­ing cut for the Le­high Val­ley Plan­ning Com­mis­sion as he threat­ened ear­lier this year.

The long-range plan is part of the re­gion’s Fu­tureLV re­port, which set long-term strate­gies for the re­gion in trans­porta­tion, hous­ing, de­vel­op­ment, open space, farm­land preser­va­tion and tech­nol­ogy. Becky Bradley, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Le­high Val­ley Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, said it is the first time the re­port has merged all these el­e­ments. The late fund­ing cut re­quired sig­nif­i­cant changes to the re­port, she said.

De­spite the chal­lenges, she said she was proud of her team and the Le­high Val­ley Trans­porta­tion Study, which held 30 hours of meet­ings to get pub­lic feed­back, re­view pro­pos­als and make amend­ments. The Fu­tureLV re­port re­ceived 224 pub­lic com­ments, about 10 times more than usual, she said.

And while no­body was happy with the shrink­ing amount of trans­porta­tion fund­ing, she was en­cour­aged by the di­a­logue that came about from study mem­bers, lo­cal business lead­ers, elected of­fi­cials and res­i­dents. Com­pli­cated mat­ters such as Penn­syl­va­nia’s Mu­nic­i­pal Plan­ning Code, ex­press bus routes, en­vi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion and trends in the truck­ing in­dus­try and their ef­fects on the Le­high Val­ley were hashed out and de­bated.

“Peo­ple were sit­ting down and talk­ing about these things like I’ve never seen be­fore,” she said.

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