After 20 years of planning, the final leg of the Route 222 bypass project will begin this month in western Lehigh County, promising traffic adventures but an eventual end to the legendary congestion in that section of the county.
Motorists who have suffered through years of chronic traffic jams on Route 222 between Interstate 78 and Route 100 probably won't be subjected to much more torment, since much of the construction over the next two years will be done to the north on the new parallel road that will become the bypass.
However, people who regularly travel the back roads in that section of the county will face traffic restrictions and detours. Engineers will try to minimize the disruption by keeping the old roads open until the new ones are done, said state Department of Transportation engineer Donald E. Lerch.
Tie-ups also are likely at the Kressler Road intersection with existing Route 222, near the Charcoal Drive-In and Bieber Bus terminal, where traffic from nearby Interstate 78 flows heavily. Direct access to the bus terminal and restaurant will be eliminated, and customers destined for the popular businesses will use a service road to be constructed to the south.
The 3.5-mile stretch of bypass being built in the final phase represents the longest leg of the new road. Work on a 2.7-mile loop west of Route 100, which will bend south, cross existing Route 222 and reconnect with Route 100 near Creamery Road, has been under way for a year.
When completed by July 2006, the four-lane, $140 million divided highway in Upper Macungie and Lower Macungie townships is expected to relieve the rush-hour congestion on existing Route 222, and to paint the lines of economic development and job growth onto western Lehigh County.
Six traffic lights will punctuate the 55-mph highway, helping provide access for area residents, as well as offer business opportunities to the fast-growing region.
In the final phase:
New bridges will be built over the Eastern Industries Inc. industrial property, Cetronia Road, and a section of Norfolk Southern rail line near Ruppsville Road. A bridge also will be built over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, requiring the toll road to be temporarily closed for up to three four-hour periods during off-peak times to install oversize girders.
In a series of traffic restrictions and detours that will change as the project advances, several roads will be relocated, included Krocks, Cedarbrook and Grange roads and Reppert Lane.
Mill Creek and Kressler roads will be extended, and Brookside Road north of existing Route 222 will be widened to provide access off the bypass.
Ruppsville Road and Reppert Lane will end in cul-de-sacs on both sides of the bypass, as will Krocks Road on the south side.
Seven intersections including three on existing Route 222, also known as Hamilton Boulevard will be enhanced or constructed anew.
PennDOT officials are expected to issue a ''notice to proceed'' on the final leg of the work after a meeting Tuesday with the general contractor, Balfour Beatty Construction Inc. The Canonsburg, Washington County, company was the low bidder for the $57.7 million contract.
With more than two years of construction still ahead, will the improvements be worth the temporary inconvenience for motorists, business owners and those who live near the work-zones?
Most residents and business owners are focused on the day the bypass will open.
''Hallelujah,'' said homeowner Herbert Bieber, standing in front of his property at 849 N. Krocks Road, just north of Hamilton Boulevard. ''It'll be a godsend.''
Krocks Road will end in a cul-de-sac instead of continuing north, so Bieber expects that much of the speeding traffic in front of his house will be reduced.
Bieber's neighbor, Ed Zettlemoyer, has replaced eight mailboxes in the 51/2 years he's lived on Krocks Road, as hasty motorists failed to maneuver a nearby curve.
''The traffic we get through here is unbelievable,'' he said. ''I don't even want my grandkids in the front yard.''
Zettlemoyer doesn't mind that he will have to drive to Kressler Road, a mile and a half to the east, or to Interstate 78, another quarter-mile, as the quickest routes north. ''That's minor,'' Zettlemoyer said, noting that the bypass should significantly reduce the traffic jams on existing Route 222 that now make the trip a nightmare.
Paul Schellenberger welcomes the bypass, too, even though PennDOT took 20 feet off his front yard to widen Brookside Road, where he lives north of Hamilton Boulevard.
He still bristles at the taking of his property. ''That's what I don't like,'' the retiree said.
With a loop ramp off the bypass onto Brookside Road, traffic is likely to increase in front of Schellenberger's home. ''It's going commercial now anyway,'' he said.
Professional offices proliferate on the road just north of Hunan Springs restaurant, including in the homes of some of his former neighbors.
''This was a pretty nice family neighborhood,'' said his daughter, Donna Schellenberger of Blandon, Berks County. ''There have been big changes.''
The changes have been fed by the remarkable growth throughout western Lehigh County more people, more houses, more businesses, more cars.
In 20 years, the number of homes in Upper Macungie soared by 124 percent, from 2,387 in 1980 to 5,335 in 2000, census data show. In Lower Macungie, the number of houses increased 89 percent, from 3,911 to 7,405, over the two decades.
Because of the explosive development, Thelma Smith of Upper Macungie doesn't think the bypass, once completed, will alleviate the traffic jams for long. She suspects the traffic will grow along with the new roads.
''They can build all the roads they want,'' she said. ''It won't help the traffic.''
Business owners along the corridor are bracing themselves for temporary inconveniences. But most are not overly concerned.
''We're still going to be open for business, and the buses are still going to run,'' said Dale Raub, manager of the Charcoal Drive-In.
Although access from Route 222 will be eliminated, customers will be able to use an access road to be built to the south to reach the restaurant, he said. An access road also will be added to the north of Hamilton Boulevard to serve businesses there.
''We have a lot of regulars,'' in addition to travelers to New York City and elsewhere who ride the bus, Raub said. ''Our customers will still come.''
Customer Dave Shadick's first reaction was otherwise.
''It's going to kill the diner,'' the North Whitehall Township resident said. ''But then,'' he quickly concluded, ''you'll still have people coming to take the bus.''
That's what Shadick's friend Jeremy Vaida was doing that day: Awaiting a bus to New York, where he's a student at Columbia University.
Glen Fulton, owner of Liaison Travel at 5194 Hamilton Blvd., has been interested in the bypass project for years as a member and onetime president of the Western Lehigh Business Council.
''It's nice to see the construction moving along,'' Fulton said. ''Everything always takes longer than you expect it to, I guess.''
Two decades of plans
State and local officials first sought solutions to the traffic jams at Routes 222 and 100 in Upper Macungie in the early 1980s. They considered new left-turn lanes and signals, but the intersection was too narrow. Buildings sat at curbside, making widening the crossroad expensive. And with development clipping along to the east, traffic problems were growing along the Route 222 corridor toward Allentown.
In April 2002, former state Rep. Don Snyder said the solution proved far more costly than anyone had dreamed: $140 million to build the 3.5-mile bypass between Route 100 and I-78, plus the 2.7-mile loop west of Route 100.
In the 20 years in between, plans waxed and waned, requiring the county and private companies to supply money to meet funding shortfalls, and resulted in four different proposals for the path of the bypass and existing Route 222. One path was rejected when Air Products and Chemicals officials complained the bypass would be too close to the company's sprawling campus. As a result, it was shifted farther north.
Homeowners and business owners in the path of the bypass protested their fate, and some fought PennDOT over the prices offered for their properties. The popular Tom Sawyer diner, in the path of the bypass, was a casualty.
In all, 163 properties were acquired at a cost to taxpayers of $31.6 million. Utility relocations alone will cost nearly $10 million.
Fulton is happy the state decided against widening the existing highway because it would have brought the travel lanes to within 25 feet of his building. He looks forward to the bypass' completion.
''I have what may be blind faith in the fact that people that have been avoiding Hamilton Boulevard for years are going to be curious when the new road opens, and they'll try it out, find out the congestion on Hamilton is greatly reduced, and they'll be back,'' Fulton said.
Increased business traffic
Guy Gilmore, owner of Taylor Rental just west of Kressler Road, said some aspects of the project are cause for concern. In front of his business, for example, traffic will be one way, rather than two way. ''That gives you pause a little bit,'' he said.
But Gilmore recognizes that Kressler Road will no longer be a ''T'' intersection ending at Route 222, but a ''through'' street that will allow access to and from the bypass. And that, he said, could generate more business traffic.
Ken Irvine Jr., who manages Becker Subaru at 4611 Hamilton Blvd., said the dealership is moving ahead full-throttle with a major expansion project.
The bypass will abut the north side, or rear, of the Becker property, though no direct access will be provided from there. Nevertheless, the dealership will gain visibility, helping compensate for its small ''footprint'' of exposure on existing Route 222, Irvine said.
Even Paul C. Stoker is happy. He had fought with PennDOT for taking by eminent domain the property where his water-treatment business had been in the path of the bypass work.
Stoker eventually settled with the state and relocated just to the west, remaining on Hamilton Boulevard. His business is thriving.
''Things worked out well for us,'' he said.
It's not clear when work at the busy Kressler Road intersection will begin, said PennDOT's Lerch. Private contractors on major construction projects have considerable leeway in sequencing the work. PennDOT can enforce completion dates, but contractors can achieve those goals largely in ways they deem most efficient.
Bill Stanich of Balfour Beatty said the precise sequencing hasn't been determined, but PennDOT District 5 spokesman Ron Young Jr. expects the work at Kressler Road to begin before late fall.
Along with local motorists, people from outside the region might be inconvenienced by one feature of the bypass project: construction of a bridge over the Turnpike, Interstate 476, between existing Route 222 and the Turnpike service plaza south of the Lehigh Valley interchange.
It's going to be a headache, Lerch admitted, though most people will sleep through it.
There is no way to install the 150-foot prestressed concrete beams required for the bridge while maintaining traffic flow on the 65 mph Turnpike, Lerch said. So PennDOT had to negotiate acceptable closure times with its fellow state agency.
The contractor will be allowed to conduct the work between 1 and 5 a.m. on no more than three Sundays, outside of the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and excluding specified holidays, Lerch said.
That's a total of 12 hours to set the beams for the bridge, which should be sufficient, Lerch said. The toll road will have to be closed between the Quakertown and Lehigh Valley exits, a length of 13 miles, to accommodate the work.
If the four-hour limit is exceeded, the contractor will have to pay the Turnpike Commission $5,000 for each additional hour.
The closure or closures likely will be scheduled next spring, Lerch said.
Changing traffic patterns
Homeowner Dave Smith, who was with his wife, Thelma, at the Charcoal Drive-in recently, sees the bypass as a plus, even though he will now have a noise wall in the back yard of his home on Werley Road in Upper Macungie.
''I was born on the land I live on. I'm not about to move,'' said Smith, 77.
When the the Turnpike bulldozed its way next to the house in 1954, some of his neighbors left. But not Smith.
Although he recognizes that the bypass will take traffic off the existing road, he believes PennDOT should have opted for a full-fledged, limited access bypass, like the Kutztown Bypass of Route 222, rather than the ''boulevard'' concept with six traffic lights.
''The big problem is people have been moving in here like mad,'' he said.
With work about to begin on the last phase of the bypass, contractors on the weather-delayed work west of Route 100 already are working overtime to make up for lost time, said project manager Darren L. LePage.
Some of the lane restrictions and detours that have affected motorists for the past year will be changing as PennDOT shifts traffic to some of the new sections of road to be completed by mid-summer, LePage said.
To help motorists and residents keep up with the changing traffic patterns, PennDOT will make its Web site more interactive. The site is www.222connections.com. Automatic e-mail updates also are available. For information, call toll-free 1-877-222-1499.
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