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December 10, 2019 10:15 AM, EST

PennDOT P3 Project Will Address I-81 Improvements

Interstate 81A 4.5-mile portion of Interstate 81 near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., will see improvements, including widening both directions to three lanes. (Doug Kerr/Flickr)

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Leaders within the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have approved a public-private partnership to reconstruct a portion of Interstate 81.

PennDOT’s P3 Board approved the project, which will involve the reconstruction of a 4.5-mile section of the route near Wilkes-Barre, on Dec. 4. Wilkes-Barre, the seat of Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, is 20 miles southwest of Scranton.

The project will involve widening a portion of I-81 to three lanes in both directions, realigning 2.5 miles of southbound interstate and replacing eight bridges. Other safety measures include eliminating a left-hand exit and improving a substandard weave distance between two routes that intersect with I-81.

Michael Bonini, director of PennDOT’s P3 Office, said the area presents an opportunity for capacity and safety improvements. He noted that traffic numbers have increased, as has development along the corridor south of Wilkes-Barre.

Michael Bonini, director of PennDOT’s P3 Office

Bonini

“We view these capacity and safety improvements as being necessary in the department’s ongoing opportunities to improve the interstate,” Bonini told Transport Topics. “Not only do these bridges need to be replaced, but we see this particular P3 project fitting in the long-term vision of really improving I-81 for not only freight traffic, but for motorists as well.”

According to PennDOT, the major corridors in northeastern Pennsylvania include interstates 80 and 81, which see between 25,000 and 50,000 vehicles every day. PennDOT’s announcement about the project’s approval indicates that the P3 delivery method will allow the agency to address the corridor’s infrastructure needs quicker than a traditional delivery method.

PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell said I-81 is an important freight corridor, providing connections to markets in New York and New England.

“There’s no denying that I-81 in Luzerne County is one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the state,” former PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said in a statement. “The P3 approach will allow PennDOT greater flexibility in making these critical improvements to our transportation network.”

Pennsylvania is important for freight movement, and trucking activity is expected to grow in the state in the coming years. According to PennDOT’s Comprehensive Freight Movement Plan, the state’s infrastructure network carries 1.1 billion tons of freight, a figure that is expected to increase to 1.9 billion tons by 2040.

Bonini explained that the P3 Board’s approval means his office can begin the process of identifying a partner through a competitive solicitation and completing the requisite planning and environmental clearances for the project. He said the project is a good opportunity for a “design-build-finance-maintain type agreement.”

The Public and Private Partnerships for Transportation Act of 2012 authorized P3 projects in Pennsylvania, enabling PennDOT and transportation commissions to form partnerships with private companies for projects.

PennDOT has also pursued P3 solutions to truck parking challenges. Earlier this year, the agency reviewed responses that truck stops and companies in the logistics, construction services and traffic management software businesses had submitted after PennDOT issued a request for input.

Pennsylvania’s Transportation Advisory Committee has identified a shortfall of nearly 4,400 parking spaces across the state.

Truck parking ranked No. 5 on the American Transportation Research Institute’s Top Industry Issues report, issued Oct. 6.

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