Will Interstate 80 projects add more traffic on Lehigh Valley highways, critics fear? Morning call

The stretch of Interstate 80 on the New Jersey side of the Delaware water gap has been a flashpoint for years due to plans by the state Department of Transportation to build a massive wall to prevent boulders from falling onto the road.

A long list of people and organizations hate the idea, from nature lovers who say the wall will spoil the gap’s natural beauty to safety advocates who assert that the curvature of the Warren County highway poses a much greater danger to motorists than falling. rocks.

Now, another problem arose. A New Jersey Department of Transportation panel says the retaining wall supporting the highway for a quarter of a mile may be “prone to sudden failure.” According to the New Jersey Herald, the commission approved a $5.5 million study to inspect the wall and determine how to repair its deterioration and cracks, which would cost an estimated $55 million.

A failure of the wall would put motorists at risk and close the highway, entrance to the Poconos and a major artery for commuting between Pennsylvania and New York. For the Lehigh Valley, that means the potential for traffic jams on an already overburdened highway system due to truck traffic from the region’s explosive growth of storage — state and federal officials think that likely won’t be the case.

“This has been talking about sending I-80 traffic through the Lehigh Valley for years,” said Tara Miznot of Knowlton. She is a founding member of the I-80 Rockfall Fence and Safety Concerns of the Delaware Water Gap Coalition, a citizen group that advocates, among other things, an independent engineering study for the Rockwall Project.

Potential traffic diversion plans during the years of rock wall construction include sending I-80 traffic eastbound south on Route 33 to Interstate 78. Motorists then head east to Route 287 in New Jersey and follow that route north to I-80. Traffic heading west will be directed south on 287 to I-78 West, then north on 33 to I-80.

NJDOT says it’s too early to provide many details about traffic or other aspects of the projects, because both are still in the design phase.

In response to questions sent via email, NJDOT spokesperson Stephen Shapiro said repair of the retaining wall will likely begin before the rock wall is built but that both projects will be coordinated as closely as possible to reduce cost and duration. In general, the department attempts to reduce traffic disruption by operating all night and leaving the track open to allow traffic to pass.

The section of the highway in question, in the towns of Knowlton and Hardwicke, is narrow and framed with an S-curve that makes driving difficult, especially for tractor-trailers. It passes through a cut of rock that nature has been grinding down since the highway was built at the base of Mount Tammany in the 1950s. As a result, rocks sometimes fall on the road. More than twenty rock falls occurred between 2001 and 2017 and caused 14 accidents, one of which was fatal.

NJDOT wants to solve this problem by building a 60-foot metal wall. This is a bad idea, says Mezzanotte’s group, not only because the wall would mar the beauty of the area but because by far the biggest danger is the bend of the road. The wall would only exacerbate this threat by eliminating the shoulder of the road, making the S curve narrower.

Shapiro said in the email that NJDOT has no plans to straighten the curve.

“As noted on the I-80 project website and introduced during public outreach efforts, options that include straightening the S curve will result in significant negative environmental impacts and are estimated to cost in excess of several hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

Because of the Mezzanotte group, news about the upcoming changes to I-80 spread widely and caught the attention of officials who feared the potential ripple effect on surrounding communities. Last year, Representative Rosemary Brown, who represents Monroe and Pike counties, suggested that money proposed for the project might be better spent on the proposed Pennsylvania-New Jersey commuter rail service, which would ease congestion on highways.

US Representative Susan Wilde, representing Lehigh Valley, and US Senator Bob Casey have conveyed their concerns about the rock wall to the Federal Highway Administration.

About $200 million in federal funds have been allocated to the project. In April of last year, Wilde and Casey asked about the impacts on traffic, the environment, and safety. The FHA assured them that all potential impacts were being considered under environmental assessments.

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The agency said it does not expect major traffic disruptions.

“The proposed project could be completed within the existing right of way with four lanes of traffic open (two lanes in each direction) in most cases,” the FHA said. “One exception is the bombing once a week (Mon-Thurs) which will shut down I-80 for about 15 minutes at a time during periods of low traffic.”

The FHA said most other lane closures are likely to occur in the western direction, primarily overnight. Regardless, “the project will not affect traffic on I-80 or roads in the communities surrounding the project area.”

Mezzanotte is skeptical of all of these assertions. She said the poor condition of the retaining wall has been known to everyone for a long time — residents took video of the cracks and “erosion caves” in 2020 — and she questions the idea of ​​putting the weight and stress of all the traffic on the outer driveway of the highway during projects.

“If you put that kind of language on a bridge,” she said — meaning NJDOT’s warning of sudden failure — “no one will cross it.”

“Their messages do not match what our eyes have seen,” she added. “This is where the big push is going to be now. We are screaming for a completely independent review.”

Morning Call reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6598 or [email protected]

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