The region’s economic growth has presented tremendous opportunities for businesses.
That is also true for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, but planners say that growth also creates challenges when it comes to building and funding road improvements.
The commission released a much-anticipated long-range transportation plan laying out the projects that the area will need to support continued growth over the next 15 years, and how it plans to pay for them. At Tuesday’s 2015 Lehigh Valley Transportation Forum, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, the planning commission’s executive director presented the finalized version of the plan.
More people, more businesses and more freight are fueling the need for what could be $2.5 billion worth of projects on the 15-year plan, Becky Bradley said. In the plans are a new interchange on Interstate 78 in Upper Macungie Township and a widening of Route 22.
In a speech to a packed house of elected officials, business owners and stakeholders at the Mack Trucks Customer Center in South Allentown, Bradley praised the recent influx of residents and businesses into the Lehigh Valley. But she explained that the continued growth brings infrastructure challenges.
“Good planning underpins everything,” she said. “It’s a great time to invest in the Lehigh Valley because of that.”
She said that over the next 20 years, the demand for new housing in the region will remain strong, based on the area’s continued population growth. The combined population of Northampton and Lehigh counties was just under 650,000 in the 2010 census – an 11.8 percent increase since 2000.
Bradley said even if the population grows at a slightly slower rate, the area will have about 792,000 people by 2030. At the same time, she said, the average household size in the Lehigh Valley continues to decline, furthering the need for new housing.
The commission also believes that the area’s economic growth, particularly in warehousing and distribution services, will continue in the coming decades. That, Bradley said, presents its own set of infrastructure challenges for regional planners to tackle.
The amount of freight that is moved through the Lehigh Valley in 2011 was about 40 million tons. Bradley said to put that in context, in a given year in the 1950s, Bethlehem Steel itself moved about 23 million tons.
The study anticipates that the amount of freight will double by 2040 – which means a significant impact on area roads and bridges.
Because of those challenges, the new study increases the estimated amount of transportation funding needed for area roads between now and 2030. While previously it was anticipated that it would take $1.9 billion to complete those projects, Bradley said it will now take about $2.5 billion to complete the work.
“As we continue to urbanize and suburbanize, you can expect more [infrastructure challenges],” Bradley said.
Bradley did not get into specifics about where the projects would be located – but they are outlined in detail in the plan. She stressed the need for a new interchange on Interstate 78 in Upper Macungie Township, where the majority of the truck trips in and out of the area originate. She also discussed widening Route 22 between Airport Road and 15th Street – which will require the replacement of several large bridge spans, including one over the Lehigh River.
A common question raised throughout the transportation forum was whether Congress will provide the funding necessary to complete the projects. Bradley said that 80 percent of the funding for road projects in the area originates in the federal government.
State Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards, the keynote speaker, explained that the federal highway trust fund needs to be extended meaningfully. She said that it has been sustained month to month with emergency congressional action. But in order to do long range planning, they need to know there will be a dedicated source of funding.
She said the state transportation package passed in 2013 – which uses increased gasoline taxes to fund infrastructure – will help, but is not a panacea to Pennsylvania’s infrastructure issues.
“Yes it’s fantastic, and we are the envy of many states who do not have it, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s wish list is going to be completed,” she said.
Federal highway funding was also a hot topic in a panel of local transportation heavyweights. The panel was moderated by chamber CEO Tony Iannelli and followed the fast-paced format he has become known for on his weekly television show.
State Department of Transportation District 5 executive Michael Rebert agreed with Richards that federal funding is crucial to completing the infrastructure projects that the area needs.
“I’d love for it to be the decade of investment,” Rebert said. “But we need the certainty of federal funding.”