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Ambitious project aims to reshape I-83

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This map highlights three phases of the Interstate 83 project.
This map highlights three phases of the Interstate 83 project. - (Photo / )

Over the next 10 years, Interstate 83 around Harrisburg will be completely redesigned to include a new exit at Cameron Street, a reworked Eisenhower Interchange and more lanes to accommodate traffic going north and south.

With a price tag approaching $1 billion, the restructuring project is rolling out in three phases, or sections, and could affect dozens of businesses and residents, who will have to work out deals to sell their land and find new places to live or operate.

Key features

A website dedicated to the Interstate 83 project includes a video that reviews highlights of the project’s three phases or sections. It also has a number of documents and other materials. For detailed information about the project, go to http://www.i-83beltway.com/.

Here are some of the highlights (see map above for reference):

Phase 1 extends south from Interstate 81 to Union Deposit Road and involves:

  • Widening I-83 to three lanes in each direction and adding a fourth auxiliary lane in each direction between interchanges.
  • Replacement of bridges for Route 22, Elmerton Avenue and Union Deposit Road
  • Construction through 2021
Phase 2 extends south from Union Deposit Road to 29th Street and includes the Eisenhower Interchange. It involves:
  • Widening I-83 to three lanes in each direction.
  • A new interchange connecting I-83 to Paxton Street around the Harrisburg Mall.
  • Construction starting as early as 2022.
Phase 3 runs west from 29th Street to the Susquehanna River. It involves:
  • Widening I-83 to three lanes in each direction. 
  • Replacing the 13th Street exit with a new exit at Cameron Street.
  • Construction starting as early as 2022

But on the upside, the project is expected to fix what has become a morass. The I-83 portion of the Capital Beltway connects with a confluence of major roads, including Interstate 81 and Routes 581 and 322. It veers sharply at the York Split, and cuts sharply off again going north as it meanders toward I-81. Safety is a primary reason for the redesign project.

“If there is a traffic accident anywhere on any of these roads, it affects everywhere,” said Jim Fosselman, manager of Swatara Township, where a portion of I-83 runs. Other affected municipalities include Lower Paxton Township, Paxtang and Harrisburg.

Waiting for details

Fosselman is among those who sees great potential in the project but is concerned about the details, which still are being developed. Preliminarily, he said he has been told, dozens of businesses and residents in Swatara Township alone could be affected by the project, which will take until 2030 to complete and cost about $990 million. The properties identified so far are on the tax rolls, which means officials would want owners to find new locations in the township.

“You don’t want to lose any type of retail business,” Fosselman said.

Until plans are finalized, however, property owners can’t sell or seriously look for new locations, he added.

The details are expected emerge over the next year or so as environmental studies and other plans come into clearer focus, said Becky Mease, senior project manager with McCormick Taylor Inc., the engineering firm designing the second phase of the redesign. Phase 2 will include redesigning the Eisenhower Interchange to make traffic in and around I-83 flow more smoothly, she said. The ongoing studies will determine a number of issues, such as where sound barriers might be needed, as well as what properties will be impacted.

Phase 1 covers a stretch from I-81 to Union Deposit Road. Phase 2 picks up from there through the Eisenhower Interchange to 29th Street. Phase 3 picks up there and extends to the Susquehanna River but ends before the York Split. Portions of Phase 1 already are under construction.

Fosselman said he has been pleased with how the state and its contractors have communicated developments so far and expects that to continue. The Eisenhower Interchange has been a mess for a long time, he pointed out, so the project has great potential and could improve property values throughout the area, although there are no guarantees.

“The economic impact could be good. It could be bad,” he said. “Overall, I think it will be good because I think it is necessary. It’s just getting there from here.”

The challenges

Ten to 11 years is a long time for a construction project, he and others noted, adding that the engineers intend to have two lanes of traffic open in both directions during the duration of the construction. Following through on that probably will be the biggest challenge, said Jock Alfieri, project manager with HNTB, which is the engineering firm handling the third phase.

“There are a lot of things going on,” said Alfieri. “It’s a lot of work maintaining traffic while building all that needs to be built and keeping two lanes in each direction open at all times – that is a challenge.”

Overall, one of the more interesting aspects of the project will involve “collector distributor roads,” he said. When the redesign is completed, the interstate will feature through lanes for traffic traveling around Harrisburg and the other municipalities but have collector lanes to allow traffic to exit, he noted. Safety is a major reason for the project, and such designs will increase awareness and make it easier for drivers to navigate, Alfieri said.

“It gets the slower traffic away from the through traffic,” he said.

For Harrisburg officials, a new interchange at Cameron Street could advance their long-held desire to revitalize the commercial and industrial corridor from I-83 to where Cameron Street connects with I-81, said Wayne S. Martin, city engineer for Harrisburg. That plan includes eliminating the interchange at 13th Street, which will alleviate heavy truck traffic in residential areas, including taking traffic away from Foose Elementary School.

By the same token, Martin also said, city officials have serious concerns with the overall project because it could interrupt pedestrian flow and local vehicle traffic in and across various neighborhoods. The city wants to ensure the overall plans take into account walkability and bicycle paths, among other concerns, and that the redesigned highway doesn’t cut off neighborhoods from the rest of the city. People will need to be able to get across, under or around the new highway with ease, he said.

“They have a long way to go. They know it, and we know it,” said Martin. “We’re just hoping they are looking through all the lenses that they need to be looking through.”

Martin said he expects PennDOT officials and other planners to keep the city fully informed as plans progress, which he said has been a previous concern.

“I don’t know if I would say we oppose the PennDOT plans,” he said, adding: “But we have a lot of concerns. We are not trying to be contentious. We are trying to work with them.”

Accounting for input

John M. Bachman, a senior project manager at PennDOT overseeing the whole project, said the agency has held a series of public meetings and will continue to work with stakeholders as the plans progress. Bachman, who has been with PennDOT for more than three decades, said the I-83 project is one of the more exciting jobs he has taken in his career. The start of master planning for the project can be traced to back at least 2003, he said.

“We have had a lot of input from the public,” he said.

Dick Norford, a spokesman for the Capital Area Greenbelt Association, said his group has maintained good contact with the project’s stakeholders and sees potential for improving the greenbelt, a 20-mile loop through Harrisburg and surrounding communities that is used for walking and biking.

“We have been monitoring it early on from how it impacts the greenbelt,” Norford said. “We are not particularly concerned at this stage because they are still in the planning stages.”

He said he has been pleased how the planners have included his group in the conversations and expects that to continue, which is particularly important because the project will take years to complete and have an impact on the region for generations.

“It will take more than 10 years for all this to happen,” Norford said. “Then it will be there for 20, or 30 or 40 years or more.”

Several observers noted that the highway plan takes bicycling into account, as well as walkability. Such features will help the overall goal of alleviating congestion, which contributes to safety issues on the highway, said Steve Deck, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. His organization is a metropolitan planning organization, giving it oversight over federal planning projects in Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry counties, he said. Long-term, he added, the I-83 project should offer many improvements to safety and congestion.

A major obstacle with the construction will be the fact that the highway already is flanked by a lot of development, leaving little wiggle room to expand without affecting private properties. PennDOT records indicate that nearly 50 properties could be affected in Phase 3, along with more than 50 properties that could be affected in Phase 2. Public interest and concern will increase as properties are identified, he and others said.

The basic process for acquiring property will be to first identify the parcels. After assessments are done, property owners will be made an offer. Most times, the offer is accepted or negotiated and the land is sold. If there is a lingering dispute, eminent domain might kick in as a last resort, where the issues are taken to court and a price is set, sometimes relatively quickly.

“Often, it’s an amicable agreement,” Alfieri said.

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