To keep the region’s economic growth – and its vehicles – moving throughout the Lehigh Valley, the region’s many roads and bridges need upgrades and money to fix them.
To support the booming development around the bend, whether it’s the massive FedEx Ground facility or the significant growth in industrial sites, population and workforce, officials long have said that infrastructure investment is essential.
Officials announced these federal funds, more than $458 million, will be invested in high-priority infrastructure projects in Lehigh and Northampton counties the next four years.
More than 200 professionals gathered at the Mack Trucks Center in Allentown on Wednesday afternoon to hear the latest details on these long-awaited transportation projects that directly affect their daily lives.
The annual forum, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and Lehigh Valley Traffic Club, included a panel discussion which focused on the pending FedEx Ground project. Included on the panel was Stephanie Cohen, vice president of strategic planning for FedEx Ground, headquartered in Moon Township in western Pennsylvania, who spoke about the economic impact of the project.
It marked the first time a FedEx Ground official publicly spoke in the Lehigh Valley about a project about to go under construction on vacant land in Allen Township, north of Lehigh Valley International Airport.
“We’ve conducted a very exhaustive search across three states,” Cohen said. “This site is very well-situated … to serve our other operations. We’re really excited to come here and be part of the community.”
The facility will bring about 600 jobs at the time operations begin by late 2018, Cohen said. Positions include package handlers, managers, maintenance workers and other positions, she said.
Questions arose over traffic and the impact to infrastructure.
Though an audience member asked Cohen how many trucks would be moving through the site each day, she said she did not know the answer to that.
The facility, a megahub, would produce about 45,000 packages per hour, Cohen said, adding that FedEx Ground has 34 megahubs in the nation and operates 20 in Pennsylvania.
Though it is close to the airport, the project will not be shipping packages via air travel.
“We are part of FedEx Corp., so this project is specific to FedEx Ground, so there is no air interface,” Cohen said.
The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority and The Rockefeller Group, the New York developers of the FedEx Ground megahub, finalized the plan last month to build the FedEx site. The airport authority sold 260 acres for the project along Willowbrook Road to the developer for $9.8 million.
“It’s a huge deal because now we can move forward on things we couldn’t have in the past,” said Charles Everett, executive director of the LNAA and a panelist at the event. “Now we can start the rehabilitation projects that have been on hold.”
The money will fund millions in capital improvements at Lehigh Valley International Airport, including repaving its 90,000-square-foot main runway and replacing aging equipment.
Panelist Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, said her organization backed the project because it is surrounded by infrastructure in an industrial zone to support it. With funding for the Route 22 expansion, Bradley said, she was confident the area could accommodate the project.
The Valley has to keep businesses such as this where it has the infrastructure to support it, she said.
“I think the community has to balance the needs of growth and lifestyle,” Everett said, noting that the region needs to retain the ability to generate revenue.
Support for the FedEx Ground project also came from another panelist, a representative from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
“I think the project is a great economic development driver for the region,” said Susan Heimberger, special assistant to PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation. “One of the governor’s top goals is job creation.”
HIGH PRIORITY PROJECTS
In her presentation on the proposed Transportation Improvement Program, which was prepared by members of the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study, Bradley said the more than $458 million investment is critical.
“It is the single largest investment in the region’s transportation infrastructure,” Bradley said. “This is the first true public release of our transportation draft plan.”
The program gathers federal money, matches it with state money and then allows members of the transportation study to allocate the funds to high-priority projects.
This year’s investment represents a 20 percent increase over the previous transportation improvement program, she said.
Divided into bridge, highway and transit projects, the plan identifies funds for many long-awaited projects, including two new ones – the proposal for interchange work at Center Valley Parkway and Route 309 and upgrades to the 13th Street exit off Route 22 in Easton.
The report is open for public comments between June 14 and July 14.