HOWARD Despite impassioned pleas by officials and residents, it's full steam ahead for a local interchange to be included with a high-speed interchange at Interstate 80 near Bellefonte.
The Centre County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted overwhelmingly, 15-2, at its meeting Tuesday night to proceed with plans for a high-speed interchange linking I-80 with Interstate 99 near Bellefonte, along with a local interchange that would link I-80 with the Jacksonville Road (Route 26) near Shay Lane to serve local residents and emergency responders.
The vote also encourages improvements along Jacksonville Road to handle the possible influx of traffic on that road.
Only Halfmoon Township Supervisor Barbara Spencer and Patton Township Supervisor Jeff Luck voted against the measure after more than two hours of debate.
Tom Zilla, transportation planner for the Centre Region Council of Governments, told the members they either could vote to continue planning for the projects, or disband all the projects, with the MPO forced to pay back the nearly $28 million already spent for various studies of the two interchanges over the last decade.
The vote came before a packed house at the J.K. Yearick Center at the Howard Fire Hall.
Marion Township Supervisor and Roadmaster Ray Gutshall told the members that 95 percent of the 384 residents who signed a petition opposed the local interchange at Shay Lane, about three miles east of the current exit.
He said the local interchange would likely increase local traffic on a road that is not designed for that purpose, and has buses, Amish wagons and farm machinery that travel it daily, along with several cattle crossings.
"You voters and decision-makers of the Centre County Municipal Planning Organization would be responsible for placing people in jeopardy," Gutshall charged. "We, the constituents, would ask this group to rule in favor of the high-speed interchange, but eliminate the local access interchange at Shay Lane and maintain the present local access interchanges of Milesburg for westbound traffic, Lamar for eastbound traffic and the Bellefonte-Zion interchanges for immediate traffic in that area.
"Route 26-Jacksonville Road would be the same accident-prone death trap that Route 322 from Potters Mills to State College is at this time."
Tom Mills, president of the Howard Fire Co., said emergency responses have "skyrocketed" on Route 26 since I-99 was completed to Bellefonte, and warned of future safety concerns with the local interchange.
"We've already had an increase in traffic. We've already had response delays due to concerns on traffic on the Jacksonville Road," he said. "There are no pull-offs, there are no shoulders, there are no berms or water run-off, and anytime anything happens over there, emergency vehicles have a difficult time... getting the equipment there to take care of the people we need to take care of. It's a grave concern."
Richard Watters of Howard Borough Council said his group recently voted unanimously to oppose the local access interchange at Shay Lane.
"Our first concern is the safety of our residents," he said, noting about half of the children who attend Howard Elementary School cross Route 26 daily.
Watters said he believes eliminating a local interchange would force more residents, especially those in the Lock Haven and Beech Creek areas, to take Route 150 up to the Milesburg exit of I-80 to get to State College, and stay off of Route 26 (Walnut Street) through Howard.
However, Bellefonte Borough Council President Frank Halderman said his borough would be against the high-speed interchange if no local interchange is attached because traffic would then increase in Bellefonte.
"Our roads also cannot handle that traffic," he said. "We've had several pedestrian accidents in the last several years and traffic would be increased through town. We cannot and will not support that."
Karen Michael, assistant executive for PennDOT District 2, said the interchange has been examined for the past 10 years mostly at the wish of the residents who attended public hearings and favored a local interchange at that time and all of the other alternatives contain several "constraints," including agricultural land, historic land, wetlands and fishing streams.
Several other residents also spoke against the local interchange, while a few Barbara Salisbury of Jacksonville Road and Rick Dillon, co-owner of Bellefonte-State College KOA Campground near the current exit said the new local interchange would likely decrease local traffic.
PennDOT District 2 Executive Kevin Kline said his agency's recent traffic study has shown a decrease of traffic in the Route 26 area.
Boggs Township resident Steve Dahm suggested a simpler and cheaper alternative to the local interchange, having a road run parallel to I-80 from the Jacksonville Road to the Zion Road for local residents.
However, Kline said the areas that would be needed are protected.
Before voting against the measure, Spencer said she heard from many residents who are against the local access and wondered if it is necessary, given the nearby Milesburg and Lamar exits to I-80.
"I don't see why we would tear up the land to make a new interchange. I don't see it as being safer," she said.
After the vote, Luck said he is against the design of the interchange and believes it will only help with traffic during the possible construction of the high-speed interchange. Also, he noted representatives of the municipalities most affected by the decision don't have representation on the MPO board.
"It's not appropriate for me to disregard their concerns," he said.
But in moving the motion forward, Spring Township Supervisor Frank Royer said Route 26 was a "nightmare" in his township before I-99 opened, causing a "dramatic reduction" in local traffic.
Further, Royer noted, the current interchange in his township has been the scene of many severe accidents, including one last week that shut down that exit for two hours.
"How many people do we need to get injured or killed before we get somebody moving to get this project and get it done?" he asked.
Arnold said design of the local interchange is complete and bids could soon be sought for the estimated $43 million project. Design of the high-speed interchange, estimated at $125 million, is about 60 percent complete.
However, the major hang-up now is that both projects were removed from the county's long-term transportation improvement plans last July because sufficient funding was not committed for construction.
Zilla recommended putting the projects back on the plan. He had hoped to get money from the I-80 tolling plan, but that has since fallen through - for now. Other possibilities could be "spike" funding from PennDOT, a federal earmark or the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grants program through the federal stimulus program.
Applications for the TIGER program are due by Sept. 15, with projects selected in February.