Penn State

‘It’s not just a traffic problem.’ Penn State, local residents grapple over parking deck plans

Penn State and the State College Coalition of Neighborhood Associations appear to have reached an impasse in talks to resolve disagreement about the planned West Campus parking deck.

In a meeting held Monday afternoon at Foxdale Village, coalition members, representatives from State College and Ferguson Township, PennDOT employees and Penn State leadership gathered to discuss problems coalition members say they have with the current project’s traffic management plan.

“It’s not just a traffic problem, but it’s changing the character of State College; it’s going to be substantially different. We have massive numbers of cars coming in one place,” said Bill Hartman, a coalition member who lives in the Holmes-Foster neighborhood.

In a letter to Penn State and PennDOT several weeks ago, coalition members expressed concern about the latest traffic management plan submitted by the university, which included only one entry/exit from White Course Drive to North Atherton Street. Previous versions of the plan included a second entry/exit from Buckhout Street where it intersects with West College Avenue, which borough council and coalition members rejected because of concerns over congestion and traffic flooding into residential neighborhoods.

Rob Watts, transportation engineer with McCormick Taylor, Inc., which drafted the Transportation Impact Study for Penn State, said the latest plan identifies several intersections where signal improvements and traffic mitigation are needed.

The study recommends extending the northbound right turn lane from Atherton Street to Park Avenue, adding a southbound Atherton Street right turn lane onto White Course Drive, changing White Course Drive lane use and striping, clarifying the northbound Atherton Street left-turn lane striping and adding signal improvements at White Course Drive and Atherton Street.

A report from Stahl Sheaffer Engineering, which reviewed the parking garage’s TIS, found that car queuing on Atherton Street in a southbound right turn lane heading to White Course Drive would exceed the turn lane’s proposed capacity, potentially causing traffic backups or blockage.

Additionally, the review found that five years out from the parking deck opening, during the morning peak traffic hour, the northbound right turn lane onto Park Avenue would cause car queuing above the turning lane’s capacity. At the intersection of Atherton Street and College Avenue, the review found that five years out during afternoon peak hour, car queuing could extend an additional 15 vehicles past what traffic would be if there were no deck.

Donna Queeney, coordinator of the coalition, said she and other members wanted Penn State to seriously consider constructing a second entry/exit point, particularly one leading from the proposed parking garage along the golf course to Blue Course Drive.

Steve Watson, director of planning, design and properties at Penn State, said there were too many environmental concerns surrounding a possible Blue Course Drive entry/exit. Those concerns included a potable water well and a dry well that, if disrupted, would cause “substantial impacts” to Ferguson Township residents’ drinking water and stormwater runoff control.

For Penn State, the Blue Course Drive option is off the table, said Charima Young, Penn State director of local government and community relations. That’s due to the environmental risks and Penn State not wanting to disrupt the golf course, said university planner Neil Sullivan. But the Buckhout Street connection is still viable, and preferred by the university as a second entry/exit, Young said.

When members of the coalition said Penn State has historically not done enough to work with community members on future projects it has planned, Watson pushed back.

The university, he said, worked closely with the borough in executing the downtown master plan and focusing on the aesthetics of the College Avenue corridor.

“Since the time of that master plan, we’ve executed over half a dozen projects to improve pedestrian and bicycle amenities on the north side of College Avenue. So we’ve been working to advance the goals of the downtown master plan and the borough,” he said.

The second entry/exit point at the intersection of Buckhout Street and West College Avenue does the best in terms of traffic management, said Watts.

Neighborhood coalition members are not quite convinced. Susan Venegoni, vice president of the Highlands Civic Association, said that there are several new planned developments in Ferguson Township — including Pine Hall Traditional Town Development and the Toll Brothers development The Cottages — that could dramatically increase traffic on West College.

Erik Brown, PennDOT District 2 plans engineer, said the department incorporates all developments that have Highway Occupancy Plans into any traffic studies it does in order to get an accurate traffic count.

Frank Maguire, president of the Greentree Area Association, said he wants the coalition to have an input on plans like this going forward.

“Hopefully what comes out of this (meeting) today is that we do have this conversation and that we are actually talking about the different development projects, no matter where they are in the process and what it’s going to mean for our growth,” he said.

The next steps for the parking deck, which is slated to open in fall 2020, include consideration of a land development plan by the Borough Planning Commission. The project also requires PennDOT and State College Borough approval of the latest traffic study.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.