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Study presents options for Exit 48, 49 fixes on I-81 near Carlisle

This article appeared on Cumberlink.com on April 20, 2018. Click here to read it.

By Zack Hoopes

A committee of local governments has unveiled a plan to improve the problematic Exit 48 and 49 interchanges on I-81. But funding and implementing a fix will likely be a years-long project.

The traffic analysis, discussed at a public meeting Thursday night, boils the issue down to the two most viable options.

The first would be a connector road, extending from the southbound off-ramp at the Trindle Road (Route 641) interchange and running parallel to the west side of the interstate, creating an intersection with the southbound on-ramp at York Road (Route 74).

The second would involve turning Exit 49 at Trindle Road into a full interchange, with on-and off-ramps for both the northbound and southbound side of I-81.

“We focused our attention on the two [options] that, between the steering committee and the consultant … we felt best met our needs,” said Todd Trautz, a traffic engineer and consultant with Michael Baker International.

Baker consultants conducted the study with backing from the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp., in concert with several municipal governments.

Congestion on Trindle and York roads is driven by congestion at the I-81 interchanges, and vice-versa, creating a potential barrier to growth in the near future.

Traffic volumes are projected to nearly double by 2030 by most estimates, said CAEDC CEO Jonathan Bowser.

“For tonight’s purposes, we want to get the community together and on the same page as to what our thought process is in coming up with alternatives,” Bowser told the crowd gathered at the Army Heritage and Education Center.

For anyone who has attempted to use Exits 48 or 49, or commuted into or out of Carlisle on Routes 641 and 74, the root of the problem is clear.

Exit 49, at Route 641/Trindle Road, allows motorists to get on I-81 northbound — but motorists northbound on the interstate cannot get off at Exit 49. Those southbound on the interstate can likewise get off, but drivers on Trindle cannot get on southbound I-81 at Exit 49.

At Exit 48, southbound motorists cannot get off the interstate, although those on York Road can get on I-81 southbound. Motorists can get off the northbound side of the interstate, but cannot get back on from York Road.

This has created traffic bottlenecks at the interchanges, and what Trautz said was a “pretty intense” use of residential side streets as drivers attempt to wind their way up or down to the correct interchange configuration.

Troutz used traffic counters at several locations to gauge patterns.

“What surprised me the most was how much Fairfield [Street] was used,” Trautz said.

Fairfield Street connects Trindle and York Roads, running through a residential area just west of the interstate.

The first of the two main alternatives identified by the study would create a dedicated connector road to replace this use, sparing the neighborhood from a heavy volume of through-traffic by effectively connecting the southbound off-ramp at Exit 49 with the southbound on-ramp at Exit 48.

This option would likely be cheaper and logistically easier to build, Trautz said, but would not do as much to relieve congestion.

The other option, which received more interest from those in attendance, would be to create a full interchange at Exit 49. This would also give much better service to AHEC and the Carlisle Barracks via Army Heritage Drive, a key feature given how much the military workforce contributes to commuter traffic.

The outstanding issue, however, is funding. A final price tag on either option has not been determined, Trautz said, but would certainly not be cheap.

In Pennsylvania, PennDOT plans capital improvements through local study groups. For the Midstate, this is the Harrisburg Area Transportation Study, or HATS.

“It would need to be prioritized by HATS and they’d have to identify the funding,” said Greg Penny, liaison for PennDOT’s District 8, which covers the Midstate region. “Ultimately, someone is going to have to put this plan forward and convince people of its importance to get those dollars onto HATS’ schedule.”

Year-to-year funding is perpetually limited, said Kirk Stoner, Cumberland County’s planning director and a board member for HATS. A large project such as the interchange work would be a matter of public will to get additional state or federal funding, and Stoner suggested that a concentration on the public safety issue involved was the best lobbying strategy.

The traffic study found that Exits 48 and 49 have a safety concern. Between 2012 and 2016, the interchange area on York Road saw 119 reportable crashes, meaning incidents that involved personal injury or vehicle towing. The Trindle Road interchange stretch saw 81 such crashes, Troutz said.

This goes hand-in-hand with local demands to widen I-81, ideally from the Maryland border all the way through Harrisburg, in order to reduce crowding and lower the collision rate.

“I don’t see it at all as two separate efforts. The widening and the interchange improvement both address the same safety problem,” Stoner said.

Trautz said West Virginia’s recent widening of I-81 has seen a precipitous drop in collisions, a case study that could help lobby for widening in Pennsylvania.

Many residents in attendance on Thursday said the impact of interchange improvements will be limited if the core issue isn’t addressed — that issue being the bottleneck of heavy trucks on I-81.

“We don’t know when or how they’re going to widen the road through here,” Trautz said. “We want an alternative that’s adaptable to a widening scenario … either one of these is pretty adaptable.”

The public is asked to take an online survey regarding their views on the options presented, available at surveymonkey.com/r/Exits48_49.

Once results are in, another meeting will likely be held to finalize the group’s direction, Bowser said.

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