Traffic study looks toward Lebanon County growth
Look at it like this: Lebanon County doesn't have enough money to fix everything that's perceived to be broken regarding its traffic congestion, but it does have money for some innovative bandages.
The county is in the midst of a long-term congestion management process study called "Lebanon County Moves" that aims not to fix the county's increasing traffic problems but to ease them at least slightly and set the wheels in motion for a traffic system ready to cope with the county's future growth.
The study is seeking public input, with the results expected in mid-2014.
"When companies look to go into a new area, the first thing they ask about is what is the transportation system like," said Jon Fitzkee, a transportation planner in the Lebanon County Planning Department and one of the administrators of Lebanon County Moves. "That shows you the importance of keeping traffic moving."
The county's growing population — up 12.4 percent to more than 135,000 people between 2000 and 2012, according to U.S. Census figures and estimates — has revealed some problem areas in its transportation system that call for some fixes before they get any worse.
At a recent summit on county transportation that included both government officials and private stakeholders, attendees were asked to rank what they believed the worst traffic problems in the county were. The results haven't been tabulated yet, according to Michelle Brummer, an associate at Gannett Fleming in East Pennsboro Township and the project's community liaison.
"Compared to someplace like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., or New York City, no, it's not that bad," Brummer said. "But we're trying to keep us all moving smoothly, steadily and safely. If we make bad decisions now, it's going to get worse a lot faster."
The traffic problems aren't just annoying — they hinder the system's stakeholders financially. Gene Grubb, manager of Quaker Express, a courier service in West Lebanon Township, said he estimates traffic congestion costs his small business $5,000 to $9,000 per year.
"It costs you time and money," he said. "You've got drivers sitting in their running vehicles losing gas and losing time. It's a mess."
Some of the major, expensive transportation and traffic fixes — light rail service, road widening, rebuilt intersections — are not feasible because of limited funds, Fitzkee said. It is not known exactly how much money the project will have because of the variable nature of government funding.
It's the solutions that aren't exorbitant the county is looking at, such as traffic signal synchronization or replacement, additional signs or small construction projects that could have a big effect on traffic flow.
The county already has had success with an adaptive signal system on Route 422 from Palmyra through Cleona. The system links traffic lights in the corridor digitally to help regulate traffic flow.
According to PennDOT travel time data, before the adaptive system went in, the average travel time in the morning rush was 13 minutes and 8 seconds. The system reduced the drive time to 11 minutes and 14 seconds — a 13 percent decrease. The afternoon rush hour fell from 16 minutes and 10 seconds to 14 minutes and 21 seconds, a drop of 12 percent.
It's those kinds of fixes Fitzkee said the county is likely to undertake.
"Everyone always says, 'Bypass, bypass, bypass, we need a bypass.' But we can't build our way out of our problems," he said. "In a way, it's a good thing, because it's forcing us to look at more innovative ways to do things that might be cheaper and more efficient. If money was flush, we might not even consider them."
One of the major aspects of Lebanon County Moves is the public interaction officials said it needs to identify the most-congested sites in the county. In a change from traditional government outreach efforts, the project is heavily focused on Web and social media interaction rather than public meetings.
There are incentives for frequent commenters on the website, Brummer said, such as gift cards and free rides on the Lebanon Transit system.
"No one wants to go out at night and listen to someone talk about transportation projects," Fitzkee said. "When we first started holding public meetings on this, we did a lot of promotion and only got 12 people to come to the first one. I felt terrible, I thought it was awful only 12 people came. Then I was talking to people at PennDOT and they said, 'Wow, 12? That's great! We've done ones with none.' So I'm not really sure public meetings are always the best way to go."