Construction of a two-lane bridge across the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension (I-476) at State Route 903 in Penn Forest Township is nearing completion.

According to Alan Williamson, PE, the turnpike's project manager, the Phase 1 bridge will be completed by May.

What does completion of this first phase of the project signify?

Not much immediately, but a whole lot in the future.

The overall project, being bid in two phases, will construct an "electronic interchange" along the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension at mile marker 87, which will likely become the exit number.

The new interchange will allow four directions of traffic: turnpike entrances from S.R. 903 – south to Allentown and north towards Wilkes-Barre; and turnpike exits – south towards Jim Thorpe and north towards Blakeslee.

Because it is designed as a four-direction interchange, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is no longer referring to it as a "slip ramp." It is now called, the "S.R. 903 Interchange – Penn Forest Township," and is described as an electronic interchange.

The hub of the new S.R. 903 Interchange will be a five-lane bridge where S.R. 903 crosses the turnpike. Currently, S.R. 903 crosses the turnpike on an existing two-lane bridge. A second two-lane bridge is under construction on its north side.

Construction of this two-lane bridge was bid as Phase 1. The design/build Phase 1 project was awarded to Loftus Construction Inc. of New Jersey for $2.2 million.

When Phase 2 begins, this new two-lane bridge will be used to handle the S.R. 903 traffic during the construction which will include removal of the existing bridge. During Phase 2, a new three-lane bridge will replace the existing two-lane bridge.

The three-lane bridge will be tied into the northern two-lane bridge, resulting in a five-lane bridge which turnpike engineers required to provide the necessary turning radius for vehicles entering and exiting the interchange.

When Phase 2 is completed, when viewed from above, the interchange will have what the turnpike calls a "diamond pattern," the shape formed by the north and south, entrance and exit ramps. There will be four ramps and four two-lane electronic gateless portals.

Besides removal of the old bridge and construction of the three-lane bridge,

Phase 2-currently estimated at $25 million to $30 million-which is paid for by toll collection, will include widening and regrading of S.R. 903 and abatement of environmental issues.

As Penn Forest Township was once known as the Great Swamp and remains a watershed whose wetlands are listed as "exceptional value," the project was designed accordingly.

The Phase 2 construction will divide what is now the longest unbroken stretch of the Northeastern Extension, between exit 74 – Mahoning Valley and exit 94 – Pocono, a distance of approximately 20 miles.

It is the first major construction project on the Northeastern Extension in 14 years, and the first new interchange on the entire Pennsylvania Turnpike in 50 years.

Traffic entering and exiting the electronic interchange will be billed through the E-ZPass system. The license plates of vehicles exiting without E-ZPass will be photographed and mailed a violation notice.

For those unfamiliar with E-ZPass, Mimi Doyle – Public Involvement Specialist of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission explained.

"When you complete an application and establish an account, you receive a transponder, which is a radio frequency transmitter device," she said. "The transponder, the size of a deck of cards, is mounted on the windshield behind the rearview mirror. When you travel through an E-ZPass lane, an antenna reads the transponder signal, registers the toll electronically, and deducts the appropriate amount from your pre-funded E-ZPass account."

At each entrance and exit of the interchange, vehicles will pass under a gantry, a frame which houses the electronics to record the signal from the E-ZPass transponder. Speeds will be posted at 5 m.p.h.

Phase 2 construction is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2012 and be completed in the fall of 2014.

"It is wonderful to be a part of this project," said project manager Williamson. "Neighbors that have visited the site have shown nothing but good anticipation for this interchange."