Roads make connections: Although not as large an economic draw during downturn, highways solve problems

jvanderk@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Traffic counts before and after Interstate 99’s 2008 completion •  Old Route 220 from Bald Eagle to Port Matilda: 10,300 in 2007, 1,700 in 2010 •  Old Route 220 from Port Matilda to the bottom of Skytop Mountain: 16,700 in 2007, 3,400 in 2010 •  I-99 between Port Matilda and Grays Woods interchange: 23,300 in 2012 •  Old Route 322 between Carsons Corners (Route 550) and Grays Woods interchange: 22,000 in 2007, 6,200 in 2010 Source: Centre Regional Planning Agency

Realigning the intersection of state Routes 26 and 45 at the base of Pine Grove Mountain is the last project in a series considered the “backbone system” for Ferguson Township in a mid-1990s study.

Coordinated with the township’s plan for growth and development, the list includes realignment of the intersection of Science Park Road, Circleville Drive and Valley Vista Drive, with addition of the traffic signal, in the early 2000s; the Blue Course Drive extension between West College Avenue and Circleville in 2003; the widening and drain pipe project on Science Park in 2006; and the extension of Old Gatesburg Road between Science Park and Blue Course in 2011.

Other local transportation infrastructure projects have hit the pavement in a similar way, and were coordinated with anticipated growth. For some development projects, development has followed.

For the largest project in recent memory — Interstate 99 — a laundry list of needs resulted in its construction, but economic development wasn’t near the top and hasn’t boomed as anticipated.

Trisha Lang, planning and zoning director in Ferguson, said infrastructure projects there have been based on existing businesses and accounting for community growth.

“You don’t want roads to drive development” because developers will jump to build there once the road works better, she said. “We coordinate the two things. If you don’t have that coordination, you’re chasing your tail all the time.”

Now that the township’s backbone is near completion, an updated transportation study is in progress, looking at traffic flow, vacant land in the Centre Region’s growth boundary and more bicycle, pedestrian and mass transit opportunities all to “improve the function of the system,” said Manager Mark Kunkle.

Kunkle said Science Park has seen a lot of new development, including full build-out of Edwards Park, businesses along the Greenleaf Manor neighborhood and others in the area. AccuWeather and Dix Honda also relocated to Ferguson from other areas.

“For employment purposes, these connections allow people to get to work easier,” Lang said.

And, specifically with the new Blue Course and Old Gatesburg extensions, Kunkle said it “positions us to really have an opportunity to have mixed-use development.” Two projects on the way are the residential Turnberry and the mixed-use Pine Hall, both of which will sit along the Blue Course extension.

In Patton Township, the adage of “If you build it, they will come,” has taken place on the North Atherton Street corridor, even before the addition of I-99, completed in 2008.

Manager Doug Erickson, who arrived here in 1998, said the first big development was the Colonnade shopping center, which began with Target’s opening in 2000. At that time, Erickson said, it was expected that I-99 would be completed by 2002.

“I-99, I believe, has had a significant impact on the big-box retailers wanting to be on this side of town,” he said. “Three-quarters of that property has redeveloped in the last 12 to 14 years. And a lot of it started with the Colonnade.

“You talk to developers and they talk about retailers, and the retailers want to be where the cars are. (The interstate), in my thinking, is the reason most of them are there.”

Less development than expected

Interstate 99 now connects Interstate 80 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was the pet project of former U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster and originally was two separate projects in Centre County — the Route 26 relocation and the Route 220/322 improvements — that later became and were branded as part of one road.

When Centre Region transportation planner Tom Zilla thinks about the way I-99 has changed Centre County, he thinks first of safety and congestion, issues that plagued the old route between Centre and Blair counties more than a lack of economic development.

“The region has been the economic driver for a multi-county area for a long time,” Zilla said. However, he said opening up access to the area opened job markets for employers, opportunities for retail establishments and service areas for medical providers.

“I think it’s certainly a plus for having good transportation connections. It’s always tough in this area, because there are many in the community who feel development spurred by that wouldn’t be a positive.”

Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she thinks the completion of I-99 and and upgrades to U.S. Route 322 benefited the entire county.

“We are now very easily accessible — north, south, east or west,” she said. “You can get here pretty quickly and on nice roads. Or, if you prefer the more rural roads, we still have those available, too.”

It is easier to get into the State College area and, once I-99 was constructed, a push of development activity cropped up in the Bellefonte area, said Centre County Planning Director Bob Jacobs. Those plans came mostly to Spring and Walker townships, but not all have materialized. The 2008 completion of the freeway was offset by poor timing, as the economic downturn began shortly afterward.

“There are still a big number of housing units and lots that were approved, waiting to be developed, when and if the economy turns around,” Jacobs said.

In terms of commercial development, Jacobs said he doesn’t think officials have seen the amount expected once the freeway opened, but the volume it may draw remains to be seen.

“Who knows what will play out in the next five years,” he said. “We really haven’t seen much growth and development in the last five years. It’s really dropped off. Home sales have increased in the county, but in terms of sheer construction activity, that’s kind of slowed down.”

Nonetheless, officials use I-99 as a show item — proof that the infrastructure exists to support further development, particularly near interchanges.

Some communities more isolated

While developers have flocked to the North Atherton corridor, other areas along the freeway haven’t fared as well. Jacobs said officials expected to see more activity in Port Matilda, now bypassed by I-99 traffic that used to drive through the borough, but that hasn’t happened. While a traffic reduction has been positive for the area, Jacobs said that and the economic downturn may have hurt some businesses there, “which is not a good thing.”

According to statistics Zilla tracks from the state Department of Transportation, the average daily traffic count in 2007 between Bald Eagle and Port Matilda was 10,300. In 2010 it had dropped to 1,700.

For Mark Belinda, owner of the Port Matilda Hotel and Tavern, the new road “worked out for the best,” though he lost some carry-out business. Without the rush hour traffic backups that sometimes extended from the borough traffic light to the bottom of Skytop Mountain, Belinda said it’s easier for patrons to get to his business, just a half-mile off the freeway.

“People can come and go in Port Matilda without worry of the traffic snarl at the light, like they used to,” he said. “In that regard, the highway opened and hasn’t hurt me like you might suspect it would. At dinner time, if they want to come into Port Matilda, to my place, they know they can get off.”

When traffic was busy at meal times, Belinda said drivers didn’t want to get out of line just to wrestle their way back in.

For Philipsburg, officials agree I-99 creates a quicker and easier commute between the borough and other communities. The 15th Street Connector, a local project constructed during the mid-2000s, brought mixed reviews at the time as it rerouted traffic on U.S. Route 322 around the borough’s downtown, but officials also called that beneficial.

“We’ve had a lot of really good small projects,” Zilla said. “The Philipsburg project was an excellent one. A lot of the local projects are where you get into impacts like serving individual businesses. The ability to travel safely and without a tremendous amount of congestion really helps everyone.”

Philipsburg Manager Jan McDonald said I-99 and Route 322 are transforming the borough into a bedroom community — a good thing — and allowing residents to easily commute to Altoona or State College for work.

“When you had to go all the way down to the old freeway, it would add at least a half-hour to the commute,” he said.

As for the connector, McDonald said a dam was built at the same time, causing flooding every time it rains. The borough is working on a stormwater project that will intercept the water about halfway through town and move it to Moshannon Creek.

Despite that, McDonald said the bypass actually has brought more people to the downtown area, noting the borough is a “hub” of state routes 53 and 504 and U.S. Route 322.

“I think it just gives you better access to downtown and our little commercial area,” he said.

Addressing serious safety problems

The issues of safety and congestion were key to the development of I-99, with the hope by many that economic development would follow.

The first part of the project was known as the Route 26 relocation, resulting from major congestion on East College Avenue from the Mount Nittany Expressway/Route 322 to Pleasant Gap. That project resulted in the section of I-99 between the Park Avenue business area to the Bellefonte bypass, near Harrison Road. That section opened in 2002.

When, in 1986, large trucks were no longer allowed on Centre Hall Mountain, Zilla said they joined commuter traffic on the College Avenue route, headed for I-80.

“All of the traffic bound for Bellefonte, Milesburg and Lamar went out College Avenue and came inbound in the morning,” he said. “That was the major commuter route in and out of the Centre Region.”

And it wasn’t a pretty sight. Before I-99, 40,000 to 45,000 vehicles per day traveled between Houser- ville Road and Nittany Mall, creating congestion problems daily, which then resulted in more crashes due to the traffic volume.

Rush hour would create a parking lot between campus and the mall.

“I’m not sure that we have another highway today that is carrying that many vehicles in Centre County,” Zilla said.

Since that section of I-99 opened, the average number of vehicles per day on College Avenue, between Houserville Road and the mall, has dropped to 22,500. Interstate 99, between Innovation Park and Shiloh Road, carries about 30,000 vehicles per day. Zilla said local officials and PennDOT knew there were issues and, in the mid-1980s, they were looking at how to resolve them.

Far less straightforward was the second project that later became part of I-99, labeled at the time as Route 220/322 improvements, which became the section of the new freeway from Bald Eagle to the end of the Mount Nittany Expressway in Patton Township, now Grays Woods Boulevard.

Different portions of that length of road offered different challenges.

From Bald Eagle to Port Matilda, serious crashes, resulting in fatalities, were a problem, though traffic volume was only about 10,000 vehicles per day.

“Even though that road is relatively straight, there was not much room if there were mistakes made, and traffic drove fast,” Zilla said.

The next section, Old 220 through Port Matilda, created a congestion problem with the required turn.

From the borough to the bottom of Skytop Mountain, congestion remained a problem, especially outbound from the Centre Region in the evening, because traffic would be stopped at the Port Matilda traffic light. Zilla said that also resulted in crashes, but they weren’t as severe.

From the bottom of Skytop to Milesburg, crashes and fatalities became a problem again, because the road involves more curves and vertical changes. Carsons Corners (Route 550) to the expressway also saw many crashes.

“The alignments were designed in such a way to try to address several needs,” Zilla said. “A lot of Appalachian highways were built to improve access and help with economic development. Clearly, here, especially in this Old 220 corridor, safety was the most important issue in those sections.”

On the horizon

County planner Jacobs said once the economy improves and previously approved plans are developed, more proposals likely will be brought forward.

But that’s going to take awhile.

“I don’t see anything big on the horizon in the next five years,” he said. “We have a lot of student housing proposed, but my guess is you’re not going to see all of that developed. I think we’ll see that slowed down, too.”

In Patton Township, the Toftrees and Grays Woods areas are designated for more growth, but full development likely is at least 20 years out, and depends on completion of transportation facilities.

In Toftrees, it’s the Waddle Road bridge and interchange. The bridge must be widened to increase capacity and renovations to the interchange will improve safety, as rush-hour traffic leaves cars lined down the ramp to the expressway.

“Last time we did a study of Toftrees, they could probably develop another 400 to 500 dwelling units until we’d get to the point of capacity of the Waddle bridge,” Erickson said.

But officials know that’s a “drop in the bucket” of what is permitted there, and that development will be limited until the project is completed. It’s in the preliminary engineering phase now, and the township is looking for funding options. The zoning there allows for various uses, such as office and retail.

In Grays Woods, much of the development will continue to be residential, with a small amount of retail allowed. Developer Bob Poole and the townships have grappled with the timing of housing units versus completion of Grays Woods Boulevard and worked out a schedule that covers the next 15 to 20 years. In the meantime, Poole’s crews built an emergency access from Deerbrook Drive, a safety measure for emergency responders to enter the area and residents to exit if necessary.

Jacobs said two larger projects he hopes to see complete in the future are high-speed interchanges at I-99 and I-80, and improvements to Route 322 for travelers entering Centre County to the south.

“Obviously, the lack of funding at the state and federal level is going to hamper it a little bit, but I think we need to continue planning for those improvements,” he said. “Once those are in the works, that should help shape where future development occurs.”

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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