Centre County municipalities, organizations prepare Long-Range Transportation Plan

It’s not a big surprise to county transportation planner Mike Bloom that some Centre Region municipalities named as their top project priority the Atherton Street stormwater pipe reconstruction.

The project to replace the deteriorating underground pipes, some approaching 50 years old, has been studied since 2011 and preliminary engineering funds were secured last year to begin the design process.

The $15 million total project is one of many bridge, transit and roadway projects that Centre County municipalities and organizations prioritize and filter to the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization to place into the puzzle that is the Long-Range Transportation Plan.

The document is updated every four years, as required by federal law, and serves as the official transportation needs plan for the area. The plan through 2040 was approved in 2010 and the update is scheduled for approval next June.

Projects are placed in the plan in four-year chunks of time, depending on the project funding availability, and move “up the food chain” as that funding materializes to the two-year Transportation Improvement Plan.

Municipalities and other entities had until Friday to submit their project priorities, including any new needs and resubmissions from the previous plan.

Dramatic drops in state and federal funding means fewer projects are completed and the ability to add new projects is limited.

Bloom said previous TIPs had $70 million to work with, which sounds like a lot. But with a standard bridge repair project costing about $1 million and projects like the Whitehall Road widening costing $12 million, the money doesn’t go far.

“This TIP is $45 million,” Bloom said. “We’ve lost such an amount of money, and that carries over into the long-range plan. That just tells us that, over the life of this plan, without any changes or new revenue streams or funding packages, we’ll have declining revenues and less projects we can do over time.”

That means projects that add capacity — like the bridge and interchange project at Waddle Road in Patton Township, a high priority — aren’t often accomplished.

“It’s more maintenance and small bridges and small, Band-Aid type projects,” Bloom said.

Three projects were completed from the current plan: improvements at the Fraser Street/Beaver Avenue intersection in State College, North Atherton traffic signal coordination and S-curve improvements and a truck pull-off on state Route 350 between State College and Philipsburg.

“That was actually a very good time period for us,” said Centre Region transportation planner Tom Zilla.

The Waddle Road project already has $3 million in funding, borrowed by the township, to begin preliminary engineering and make the project what officials call “shovel ready” should more funding become available.

The project remains a top priority for Patton Township and construction is estimated at $11 million.

The Atherton stormwater project has moved up the chain because of commitment from the municipalities and the need. Small fixes have been required along the 6.5-mile section in question as pipes collapse.

“That goes back to being such a high-priority corridor in the area,” Bloom said. “It’s one we can’t let fester.”

According to current state Department of Transportation traffic counts, Atherton Street carries the most traffic in Centre County.

Zilla said an estimated 35,000 vehicles per day drive the section of Atherton between Blue Course Drive and Park Avenue, more than the busiest section of Interstate 80 in Centre County.

As the MPO sorts through the project lists coming in, a subcommittee will rank them according to criteria including safety, environmental and other concerns. That panel includes representatives from the MPO, PennDOT and the county’s various regions.

The composite list resulting from that ranking is considered at the level of community impacts and available funding. It is not yet know what that funding projection will be.

While there could be some leap-frogging of projects, Bloom said he doesn’t expect much. The Waddle Road interchange and Park Avenue widening from Interstate 99 to Bigler Road likely will remain top priorities.

The Park Avenue project was placed as a middle priority by State College Borough. At $37 million, it would add turn lanes, add and upgrade traffic signals and provide bike lanes.

As municipalities have discussed their project lists, officials have considered the likelihood of project funding when setting priorities.

Harris Township, for example, is changing a project to place a bike path from Boal Avenue to Oak Hall to suggesting a bike lane instead.

“It’s cheaper,” pointed out Manager Amy Farkas at the Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 12 meeting.

Ferguson Township discussed shifting improvements to Pine Grove Mountain and the intersection at the bottom to make the most sense and most likely move forward.

As such, they combined projects to realign the intersection and install a full traffic signal at the bottom of the mountain, at an estimated $2.25 million. They moved further down the list a project to install runaway truck warning system technology.

All projects related to safety on the mountain and at the intersection on Ferguson’s list total more than $5 million.

“A bypass around Pine Grove would’ve solved it,” Chairman George Pytel said of safety in that area. “But it was $23 million. Guess which one you got?”