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The Road(s) to Happy Valley: As the region has grown, the routes to get here haven’t kept pace – but that is changing

by on January 29, 2020 11:50 AM

Every day, more than 20,000 people from outside of Centre County drive to Happy Valley. They come from Lewisburg and Lewistown. From Tyrone and Altoona. From Lock Haven, Clearfield, and beyond.

They come to work, to go to school, and to play. And, on certain days of the year, they come in droves to watch football or to see their kids graduate from college.

Trucks bring in products from afar and take others away. Buses bring tourists and students in and out.

As the area has grown, however, the roads to get here haven’t kept pace. Safety and backups on Route 322 and the interchange at Interstates 80 and 99 are ongoing concerns.

But current and upcoming projects on those roads are looking to provide a smoother and safer ride into our home.

The work is long, difficult, expensive, and sometimes controversial. Traveling through construction sites can be aggravating. But business and government leaders say that to keep Centre County moving safely and thriving economically, the roads to and from Happy Valley have to grow right along with everything else.

A tight squeeze

To many in Centre County, the construction on Route 322 at Potters Mills Gap feels like it has been going on forever. Work started in 2014; drivers have suffered through travel restrictions and long detours as crews built bridges, tore down trees, and made way for the new bypass.

But soon the road will be complete and the headaches will be over, giving motorists a safer and smoother ride.

The new four-lane road will be open to traffic by the end of the year, with all work on that highway and the old route to be completed in 2021, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The new four-lane road will bypass the intersection of Routes 144 and 322, eliminating one of the scariest driving maneuvers in Centre County. Sitting at the stop sign on 144 and trying to enter 322 as traffic is coming down from Seven Mountains full bore can be a white-knuckle experience, especially when turning left. Sometimes, after Penn State football games, for example, there can be a seemingly endless stream of cars coming out of State College looking to turn onto Route 322 while tractor-trailers and other vehicles are speeding down the mountain.

The new bypass is meant to help by keeping the heavy traffic coming out of State College and coming down the mountain away from the intersection and on the new four-lane road.

Drivers will be able to access Decker Valley and Sand Mountain roads by exiting the bypass to the local route, making trips to those areas safer.

“Any time you had to make a left-hand turn, that was dangerous,” says Tom Zilla, principal transportation planner for the Centre County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The MPO is comprised of stakeholders (elected officials from around the region and others like the Centre Area Transportation Authority) who are designated by law with the lead responsibility for the coordination and development of the area's transportation plans. The staff evaluates transportation alternatives, makes long-range plans, and works to secure funding for highway projects.

That tight squeeze at Potters Mills Gap has been part of the problem in the past. If there was an accident or another reason for a backup, motorists have had to travel a long way around the issue. The new road should help.

“It is going to improve safety and improve mobility, because if we ever had to shut down the road in the past, pretty much everything shut down. With the large volume of 16,000 to 18,000 vehicles going through this corridor, you can imagine that if you had to shut the road down, there will be a long detour for people to go around,” says PennDOT engineer Steve Fantechi, assistant district executive for construction.

The bypass will head past the intersection and join the old road near Cole Transportation. There will be a connector called 2015 that will lead past the Route 144 intersection to the new Sand Mountain Road bridge interchange.

On the ground, Brent Lykens, construction services engineer for PennDOT, says the project has gone rather smoothly, but when crews are moving so much dirt around, issues will arise. The major traffic delays that affected motorists this summer are over, he notes. There will be a few more times that crews will need to control traffic, but those instances should be much shorter in duration.

“There shouldn’t be any week-long or month-long traffic disruption; it might be a day here or a day there,” says Lykens.

The new road is going to be welcomed by the locals, says Brenda Homan, who for 25 years has owned Homan’s General Store on Route 144, near its intersection with 322.

“It can be scary and unsafe because people don’t slow down,” Homan says. “So it is definitely necessary.”

People coming into town for Penn State games will have a little further to go for the store’s homemade sandwiches and other delights, but she feels they’ll still stop in.

The missing link

The long talked about dream of further opening up Route 322 from Potters Mills Gap to Boalsburg with a potential four-lane highway finally got the jolt it needed last February when Governor Tom Wolf announced that the state would be committing funds toward the project, estimated at the time to cost $670 million.

“State College is right in the center of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania is right in the center of the richest market in the United States, maybe the world," Wolf said when he announced the project. "But beyond that, you have Penn State, you have all the great things that are happening in this area. We need to connect this area more seamlessly. We’re a knowledge-based economy. The 21st-century economy depends on what we have here in State College. If I were a federal planner, I would want to do everything in my power to connect places like this to the rest of the world."

The renewed interest in the project began in 2017, when PennDOT undertook a refresh of environmental, traffic, and safety data for commercial development and community needs for a corridor involving Routes 322, 45, and 144. Preliminary data showed that from 1999 to 2016, truck traffic increased 37 percent.

Zilla says PennDOT currently has committed $20 million to develop a preliminary engineering plan for the project. This means officials are going to take two to four years to look at alternatives, assess environmental impacts, select a preferred option, and obtain environmental clearance.

There is a lot to consider, environmentally, geographically, and economically.

When his daughter was younger, Zilla says, he used to explain it to her classmates by having them each represent an area that would be impacted. One kid might represent a farm, one a business, another a pond, and one might represent a population of deer that use the land. Then he would have the teacher hold one end of a string representing the road as he held the other across the classroom, illustrating all the obstacles that had to be navigated.

In a way, that is what PennDOT is doing currently: trying to determine the best way to build this missing link.

“There will be impacts, but efforts are made to provide the best alternative,” Zilla says.

PennDOT will hold public meetings on the issue as soon as this spring to share its plans and get local input.

“They will be including public involvement from the beginning all through the process,” says Zilla.

Until the first step of the project is complete, there is no way to say how much the project will cost and when it will be completed, he adds.

“Most people believe it will be a highway alternative, but there are other [alternatives],” says Zilla.

After the preliminary plan is complete, Zilla is confident that the funds will be provided to make the project happen. Then there will be more steps before construction can be started, from drawing final plans to getting clearance and moving utilities; it will be a long process.

To offer an idea of how long the project might take, he harkens back to the Skytop Mountain project connecting I-99 from Bald Eagle to State College. The project started with a needs analysis in 1991 and the road was completed and opened to traffic in 2008.

In the case of the Route 322 missing link, the traffic analysis has already been completed, so that will save some time.

High-speed interchange

When traveling on American interstates, it is not often that a driver must transfer from to another by exiting, getting on a different road, and then taking an on-ramp to the next interstate. Most of the time, those connections are made through high-speed interchanges.

Of course, there is no such high-speed interchange at the junction of I-80 and I-99, and it has caused issues of safety and convenience.

The backups that extend from the ramp at exit 161 onto I-80 before football games and other big events are extremely dangerous, leaving drivers at a standstill on the interstate as traffic whizzes by at speeds of 70 mph and higher. 

Something had to be done, and it required a team of people to make it happen

Vern Squier, president and CEO of the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County, says cooperation on the local, state, and federal levels for the high-speed interchange came together when PennDOT was looking into repairing or replacing the two bridges that carry I-80 over the current junction. The timing was right to get something done.

If those bridges were replaced without completing the interchange, it would have been unlikely that the interchange would have garnered the needed funding until the life cycle of the new bridges had run its course many years later.

The CBICC started the Centre County Drive Forward campaign to bring the players together to see if something could be done, once and for all.

The state applied for an INFRA grant from the United States Department of Transportation. Drive Forward stakeholders went to Washington, lobbied for, and received a $34 million grant for the project.

“I think that when they saw the state and local elected officials, Senator [Jake] Corman, [Representative] Kerry Benninghoff, and all the others in play, line up, I think that was impactful,” Squier says.

“This award signaled to PennDOT to not replace those old existing bridges and allow them to use that grant money, coupled with what they would have spent on the bridge replacements, to help deal with the interchange itself,” he adds.

The project will begin with a new local access ramp two miles to the east of the current intersection along Jacksonville Road. For local drivers not on I-99, this will be the new access point to Interstate 80. Because of the rural designation of the area, the new local interchange will have to be built two miles from the high-speed interchange. PennDOT purchased farm land at the site of the local interchange there years ago, Zilla says.

The work for the new local interchange will begin this spring and continue through December. Once it is complete, the crews will start work on the high-speed interchange and will make improvements to Jacksonville Road.

During construction, drivers will be able to access I-80 from the current interchange.

PennDOT says it anticipates minimal traffic impacts on I-80 during construction, since it will maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction at a reduced speed of 55 mph during most operations.

But there will be certain operations on I-80, such as cross pipe installations, setting of beams, and full-width paving that will limit traffic to one lane for short periods of time.

In the high-speed interchange area, PennDOT says existing Jacksonville Road and Musser Lane traffic may be detoured during certain phases of construction.

Most of the Jacksonville Road improvement project will have minimal impacts to motorists, but some operations will require flagging during normal construction hours, PennDOT says.

The high speed interchange is estimated to be finished in December 2025. 

Once complete, the project also is a step toward the goal of extending I-99 to the New York state line, says PennDOT press officer Marla Fannin.

“We plan to approach these projects in a similar fashion to our Potters Mills and Atherton Street projects. There will be a project page (at penndot.gov) that we will keep updated,” says Fannin. “We will also issue standard releases and notifications. Those will be distributed based on lists we build with input from internal staff and external partners. The inspector in charge for the project will also be able to respond to customer issues in the field, which should help alleviate potential for complaints. We also plan on holding meetings with the local municipalities prior to construction to keep them informed.”

Driving forward

The Drive Forward campaign was started with the intent to remove impediments for people who are moving in and out of Centre County, Squier says. Those include safety-related issues, business efficiencies, the environmental impact, and the financial impact.

“For example, when you have a traffic backup with people trying to get off of [Interstate] 80 and if you have trucks and products sitting idly, that it time wasted and fuel wasted,” he says.

Such backups can also impact ambulances that are trying to get people safely to receive care. “The last thing you want with a ground ambulance is to have somebody held up in that interchange,” he says.

Improving the infrastructure will help make Centre County a better place to live, a better place to do business, and a better place to visit, he says.

“Centre County is unique in its nature and has the capability to evolve in many positive ways that will be beneficial to the citizens of Centre County and the region,” says Squier. “As an example, Centre County imports a significant amount of labor daily from many surrounding counties. … We are a fluid economy that needs a high-quality transportation system to take care of the citizens, workers, businesses, and university, etc.”

About 15,000 to 20,000 people travel from out of the county every day to work in Centre County. Those same workers take their paychecks back home to help support other towns and communities in the region, says Squier.

And people are coming in for more than just work; they come for adventure. With them comes the money they spend on football games, going out to eat, and enjoying all that Happy Valley has to offer.

“Safe and efficient transportation infrastructure, be it our highways or air service, is an important factor in ensuring an overall positive visitor experience,” says Fritz Smith, president and CEO of the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. “As we enhance our efforts to attract more leisure and business travelers, a strong selling point is the convenience of getting to and from Centre County.

“This is especially critical considering that our primary target markets are within a day’s drive. Getting through construction can be challenging at times, but the long-term benefits of the U.S. Route 322 project and the eventual completion of the high-speed I-80/I-99 interchange will lead to greater tourism and economic development opportunities for Centre County.”

 

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

 



Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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