PennDOT: Proposed road widening project to improve roadway facilities, reduce traffic congestion and crashes
An aerial shot of Route 443, looking west on a recent morning. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
Business owners opposed to a proposed road widening project in Mahoning Township are scheduled to meet with the state Department of Transportation about the issue.
Lehighton Borough manager Nicole Beckett said council members are invited to the meeting, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 16 at PennDOT’s Allentown office.
“The business owners have followed up with me regularly,” Beckett said.
Beckett said she would also ask for two dates in January to fit everyone’s schedule.
The project is intended to reduce traffic congestion and crashes, according to the state Department of Transportation.
However, several business owners went to November’s council meeting to object to the project.
Bill Klepeiss, general manager of Lehighton Ford, said the project could have a “crippling” effect on various properties and businesses located along the strip, and will likely cause them to close or relocate.
He said the coalition has contacted the office of the state representative and state senator, but the absence of any elected official support fighting to support the businesses is disappointing.
Klepeiss maintains that traffic congestion issues don’t exist. He said there’s no significant changes in the crash data to support the need for the project. He added that the coalition doesn’t believe there’s a need for a proposed third lane down by the section where the businesses are located.
He said the coalition is seeking ways to mitigate and minimize the impact to the businesses.
Beckett said the roadway improvement project is PennDOT’s, and that borough council is in the middle of it.
The need for the project
Ron Young, PennDOT spokesman, said that from Jan. 1, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2018, there were 115 crashes. Of the 115 crashes, he said 57 were rear-end crashes and 35 were angle crashes.
There was one fatality, Young said, adding that rear-end and angle-type crashes are typically associated with traffic congestion and turning movements.
Young said there are ways to measure traffic congestion and traffic studies.
“The design engineering team did perform traffic studies, and determined this section of Route 443 is a congested corridor,” Young said. “Probably not a surprise to anyone who drives on or owns property along the road.”
Young explained the reasoning for the project.
“The purpose of the project is to improve roadway facilities to reduce traffic congestion and crashes, and to improve the structural integrity and functionality of the bridges to eliminate deficiencies,” he said. “These improvements should be capable of effectively handling the expected vehicular needs of the public, emergency services and regional traffic within the surrounding area.”
Young added that this section of 443 has increased traffic volumes due to continued commercial development, resulting in traffic congestion and crashes that led local officials to request improvements.
He said proposed improvements to 443 were identified in the Central Carbon County Comprehensive Plan (October/November 2011), which includes Mahoning Township and Lehighton Borough. Young said one of the plan’s objectives is to “encourage and support safety, operational and capacity improvements along the 443 corridor.”
“PA 443 is also noted as a key problem area in the Carbon County Comprehensive and Greenway Plan, which recommends additional turn lanes, as well as controls to minimize additional unplanned commercial driveway entrances.
The 443 roadway was originally constructed in 1945 as two 11-foot wide by 9-inch thick, top-reinforced concrete slabs with 10-foot wide unpaved graded shoulders. Subsequent resurfacing projects added a 2½-inch surface over the concrete slabs and 4¾-inch thick variable-width paved shoulders.
“The existing pavement surface is in fair to poor condition,” he said. “Reflective pavement cracking has developed over the transverse and longitudinal joints in the underlying concrete pavement.”
Young said both the 443 and Route 248 projects are likely to be happening concurrently. One lane in each direction on 248 will remain open during the construction.
“The goal will be to keep two lanes of traffic open throughout the project,” he said. “Traffic will be shifted to one half of the road while construction takes place, then moved onto the new section while the other half of the road is constructed. There will be limited times when there is one direction of traffic being controlled by flaggers. Also, they will maintain all driveway access for property owners.”
Bids are expected to be put out next spring, with construction estimated to last three years.
Business owners react
Chris Nelson, owner of the Beacon 443 Restaurant, said she constantly looks out the windows of her restaurant and doesn’t see the need for a third lane.
“I honestly believe a third lane is a total waste of money,” Nelson said. “I think there are other options they should look at; I think they need to change the light configuration, change the timing of the lights.”
Instead, Nelson said she believes they could put a turning lane at the two intersections, noting there is one already at Graver Street.
Nelson downplayed the notion of traffic constantly backing up along the busy thoroughfare.
“I’m here all day and I don’t see any traffic backup,” she said. “Every now and then you do, during rush hour; the biggest problem here is trying to make a left turn out of here.”
Donna Kemfort, manager of the Boulevard Drive-In Restaurant, echoed Nelson’s thoughts.
“We just don’t believe there’s a need for the turn lane, maybe out further,” Kemfort said. “Where our area is here, we’ve sat here, we’ve watched, yes traffic does go through here; does it take you half-an-hour, 45 minutes to get to the bridge to Walmart? No, it doesn’t.”
However, Kemfort said the need for the turn lane isn’t the only thing they’re questioning.
“The big thing, really, is we’re questioning the amount of property that they’re trying to take, the amount of parking we’re going to lose,” she said. “We have a big bank behind us, we have nowhere to go.”
That, Kemfort said, is the really big concern.
“If we lose all that parking, that will drastically affect us because if the parking lot is full, customers aren’t going to stop, that’s going to cut into business a lot,” she said. “It’s kind of frustrating; it’s scary.”
Kemfort said a lot of the businesses have been on the strip for a long time.
“We employ anywhere from 45 to 50 people,” she said. “Some of them, this is their livelihood; this is how they pay their bills.”
Kemfort referenced the bridge project several years back as a recent example.
“We lost a lot of business; we never got that back,” she said. “And this is going to be a three-year project; we’re looking at that aspect of it, the future and how it’s going to affect all of us if they proceed and we lose all the parking.”
Kemfort spoke for other business owners.
“We just don’t feel there’s the need for them to take all of the property that they’re taking,” she said. “If it’s for safety, then that’s fine; that’s not our issue, we’re all for that.”
Kemfort said the businesses are looking for help.
“We’re open to any ideas,” she said. “Any suggestions that helps us stay in business, and keeps the community safe as well.”