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Two Big Highway Projects Could See New Life

by and on July 17, 2017 5:00 AM

Local planners are looking to see how they can leverage more funds and advocate for the advancement of two major highway projects that have long been dormant.

The Centre County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s coordinating committee gave the nod to staff recently to use some of the organization’s base funding for studies and advocacy to move forward with interchange improvements at Interstates 99 and 80, as well as options for the Routes 322, 144 and 45 corridors. Both projects have been technically inactive, and have no funding allocated to them in short- or long-range plans.

More firm official support will be required to locate funding and move forward. If elected officials give their backing to continue the course of a project, it will be up to the planners to make it as appealing as possible to the state and federal agencies that administer funds. There is heavy competition for major highway projects, and statewide needs far exceed what PennDOT can allocate, said Tom Zilla, principal transportation planner for CCMPO.

The CCMPO Coordinating Committee, which sets policy, gave its informal support to help advance the two projects at its June 27 meeting. Zilla said a formal vote could be taken as early as September.

The data refresh for Routes 322, 144 and 45 is expected to take approximately two years, and will take into account safety, traffic and environmental data, with a focus on what may have changed since the early 2000s when the last study stopped due to lack of funding.

After the data refresh, public outreach will begin, which could be wide-reaching as it would affect multiple municipalities.

The $3 million is only to be used for data refresh and will not include an alternatives analysis.

There was never a single solid project that rose above all others in talks about improvements to Routes 144, 26 and 45, formerly known as the South Central Centre County Transportation Study. 

There were ideas for bypasses around Potters Mills and Centre Hall, relocations of Route 26 and improvements to the Route 322 corridor from Potters Mills to Boalsburg.

After Interstate 80 was completed, trucks began running Route 144 through Centre Hall from Route 322. There were numerous accidents in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In 1986, after the completion of the Mount Nittany Expressway, Route 144 saw a truck restriction. That same year, PennDOT began working on alternatives for the Route 144 corridor, which also spawned alternative considerations for Route 26.

At that time, improvements to Route 322 were not being studied.

In March 2013, the Potters Mills Gap project was split off from the larger scope of the transportation study when PennDOT committed funds for preliminary engineering for the three Potters Mill Gap phases. The third phase will likely begin soon, with a spring 2018 target on the final phase: a new Route 322/144 interchange and four lanes to connect with work done near Sand Mountain Road, which already had four lanes.

North from these corridors, at Interstates 99 and 80, the interchange is in need of improvement for both safety and federal regulations.

Zilla said that because the interchange has a rural designation by the federal government, regulations call for a high-speed, closed interchange with a local access interchange at least 2 miles away. The cost is estimated at $185,450,000. Work would include improvements to Route 26 and Jacksonville Road in the area, as well as the rebuilding of the Interstate 80 bridge over Route 26.

The catch is that some local improvements may have to be done in the interim, Zilla said, which could hurt the project’s chances when it comes time to advocate for funding.

The federal funding, and other non-traditional funding, may be harder to acquire because the MPO and other sectors of local planning are not equipped to complete things like studies for cost-benefit analysis. If an outside consultant is used to try to acquire these funds, that would be an even greater expenditure.

At this stage of major projects, organizations like the MPO are trying to determine the best way to leverage their base funding to get what is known as “spike funding.” Spike funding refers to a large influx of money, representing a spike on a funding chart, that is used to either push projects forward or do the actual construction.

To have a better chance at spike funding for these projects, Zilla said they will be reaching out to numerous stakeholders such as federal and state legislators, Centre County, Penn State, local municipalities, business bureaus and private businesses.

Though safety and congestion are big focus points for the projects, Zilla said helping the local economy is also a potential benefit.

During Interstate 99’s planning and construction, the economic impact was not as near the top of the list of priorities, he said. But, the exit of some larger and smaller employers and resulting loss of jobs in the late 2000s brings economic consideration further up the list.

He said there is the shipping of raw materials and finished goods to consider, and also that Centre County is a major economic driver for central Pennsylvania. If people cannot commute from outlying areas and other counties in an efficient and safe manner, then Centre County loses out on a wider selection of talent and workers.


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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