KING OF PRUSSIA, PA. (Oct. 31, 2006) – Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier announced today that commuters will soon get some relief from recent morning rush hour backups on the westbound Turnpike at the Valley Forge Exit (#326) in Upper Merion Twp., Montgomery Co. He said that off-ramp improvements – to be completed early Wednesday morning – will help shorten lines of westbound exiting traffic that started forming Oct. 16 when work got under way to widen the Turnpike to six lanes in the area.
Various lane restrictions – including reducing the westbound off-ramps at Valley Forge from two lanes to one – were implemented two weeks ago to allow the contractor, Allan A. Myers L.P., of Worcester, Pa., to completely rebuild and widen a 5.3-mile section of Turnpike from Valley Forge east to the Schuylkill River Bridge. The $158.2 million project is scheduled to be completed in November, 2008.
"Everybody knows how critical this expansion project is to reducing congestion and increasing safety along one of the most heavily used stretches of Turnpike in the state," Brimmeier said. "But our customers have understandably been frustrated with the extra time the work has added to their morning commutes. Also, neighboring businesses – major employers and retailers in King of Prussia – have expressed concern about the effect these delays might have on their bottom lines."
Of the 32,562 vehicles that use the westbound Turnpike every day between Norristown and Valley Forge, more than 60 percent (or 20,000 vehicles a day) takes the Valley Forge exit. Magnifying the condition is the fact that much of that traffic exits at the same time: during the morning peak between 7 and 9 a.m.
"As the number of calls and e-mails on this issue began to escalate last week, I tasked our project engineers to devise a solution to get more traffic off at Valley Forge," Brimmeier said. "And I'm pleased to say that we'll be able to implement the fix by rush hour tomorrow morning."
By installing a temporary deceleration lane adjacent to the exiting one, two lanes of westbound traffic will be able to use the Valley Forge off ramps. The far right lane approaching the interchange will be dedicated to "exit-only" traffic. Under the new configuration, the center lane will also have the option to get off at Valley Forge. The far left lane will be for "through," or non-exiting, traffic exclusively.
Brimmeier said traffic not exiting at Valley Forge should stay to the far left, and that intermittent congestion should still be anticipated throughout the project area. "This is, after all, construction, and it's something that we must complete in a timely manner so that the benefits of the project can be realized sooner rather than later."
Given the existing traffic volumes in southeastern Pennsylvania, Brimmeier said that the Turnpike Commission has gone to great lengths to minimize the project's duration. "We've done all we can to compress the construction schedule," Brimmeier said. "In fact, if we are successful in meeting the completion target of late 2008, this will be the shortest reconstruction project since we began rebuilding the road back in the late 1990s." Typically, such projects take 3 or 4 years to complete.
Chief among the project's engineering challenges is the limited space within which the widening is taking place. Brisk development in the area over the past decades has pushed office and retail facilities tight up against the Turnpike property.
"We knew at the outset that a key requirement would be to minimize impacts to adjacent commercial and residential properties, so the decision was made to complete the widening within existing rights of way," Turnpike Chief Engineer Al Jansen said. "From an engineering standpoint, it was essential for us to lessen the impact to neighbors while at the same time reducing, as much as we could, the length of time that we inconvenienced customers."
Brimmeier said completing major highway improvement projects in an area where the infrastructure already is at or near its intended capacity is a major challenge confronting most transportation agencies across the nation. But delaying such projects could merely serve to worsen congestion across the region. "We have to keep in mind, that the reason for the reconstruction and widening project is to make life easier for motorists," Brimmeier said. "In the highway-construction industry we're fond of that age-old proverb, 'short-term inconvenience for long-term gain,' and that certainly rings true for this ambitious undertaking."
The Valley Forge to Schuylkill River reconstruction and widening is the second half of a project to widen the Turnpike from Norristown west to the Schuylkill River Bridge. That project, begun in November, 2004, will be completed in late December at a cost of $41.3 million, leaving the Turnpike with 20 miles of six-lane interstate.
"Most of our commuter traffic is in the southeastern part of the state, so most of our congestion occurs here as well," Brimmeier said. "As a result, it's a funding priority to build the Turnpike out to six lanes across the entire region." The Turnpike Commission operates 537 miles highway across Pennsylvania. The commission's 50 miles of toll road located in the Greater Philadelphia area carries almost two-thirds of all toll traffic statewide.
Next, the commission plans six-lane widening projects from Valley Forge west to where Route 29 crosses under the Turnpike and on the Northeastern Extension (I-476) from Mid-County north to Lansdale. Work on the former project is anticipated to begin in 2009 at a cost of around $200 million; the latter is expected to commence late in 2007 with a $225 million price tag.
All of these projects are being fully funded by toll revenues and were largely enabled by an August, 2004 toll increase, the first in Pennsylvania since 1991.