Q: The proposed addition of a FedEx Ground package-sorting center and two nearby warehouses in Allen Township will add 14,000 cars and trucks to the roads each day. However, the plans filed by FedEx with the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission only address extra traffic on Airport Road, Race Street and Willowbrook Road. Won't nearly all of the additional traffic end up on Route 22? Who is going to pay for the extra delays and business losses, the increased collisions, the higher road maintenance and the necessary expansions of Route 22, which is already stressed — and stressful? The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission should demand improvements to Route 22 before accepting this plan.
— Merrill Brenner, Longswamp Township
A: They probably would if they could, Merrill. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.
Chiefly an advisory agency to Lehigh and Northampton counties and the municipalities therein, the Planning Commission has no authority to require improvements on Route 22 or any other road.
Even if the commission could require Route 22 contributions from developers, I doubt they'd exercise that authority in the case of the FedEx plan in Allen Township. As I'm sure you're aware, the commission gave the proposed development its blessing since your question was published as a letter to the editor Jan. 5. That may have come as a jolt to the suspension for some of the plan's opponents, but my past experience covering planning issues served as an effective shock absorber. I fully expected the commission to give the controversial development the green light.
That doesn't mean everyone on the Planning Commission board and staff necessarily believes the FedEx development that would benefit the Lehigh Valley in every way. It's possible that some members think it's a terrible idea overall — a conviction held by vociferous opponents of the development. However, these matters are considered on their merits, not on individual members' personal opinions of the plan submissions. (At least, that's the way it's supposed to work.) As such, the plan clearly meets the commission's recommended guidelines for development — standards set forth in its Comprehensive Plan.
Joe Gurinko of the commission staff said the FedEx plan fits squarely within the Comprehensive Plan's goals. "They meet the transportation-performance characteristics," or they will, anyway, after an estimated $25 million worth of traffic improvements envisioned for the development are completed, said Gurinko, the commission's chief transportation planner. This assumes the project continues to advance.
Presumably the company would contribute to the widening of Race Street and Willowbrook Road, and to adding a southbound lane on Airport Road, among other improvements. It's unclear how much of the $25 million would come from FedEx, or from PennDOT, or possibly from state economic-development grants or other sources.
FedEx Ground spokesman David Westrick declined to discuss that issue or other project details until the plan is farther down the road. "We're in preliminary talks with Allen Township and [Northampton County], and while it is a proposal, we just don't get into discussing specifics of the project," he said.
Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. President Don Cunningham also said it's too early to be this specific with the details. The FedEx proposal "is not a done deal yet," Cunningham said. "I think we are their preferred site, but we're not the only site. They're in the stage of talking to the state and to other entities about what the final mix will be on public and private [funding], particularly related to the off-site infrastructure requirements" including the road work. Total off-site improvements likely will top $30 million, he said.
The commission also considers FedEx a smooth-road proposal, according to Gurinko, because "The comprehensive plan looks to have development occur in areas where there's infrastructure present." Roads, water and sewer lines and power supplies "already are there" for the FedEx site, he said. Though existing roads and other features will need work, the long-range plan generally seeks to preserve rural farmland and other undeveloped areas where business development would require construction of costly and disruptive new utility lines and roads over considerable distances.
Turning back to the Main Road question, Merrill, Gurinko considers it highly unlikely that FedEx could be required to contribute to the widening of Route 22. The widening technically is listed on the state Transportation Improvement Program but without an estimated construction date. Because of chronic uncertainties in state transportation funding, it's been an on-again, off-again proposal over the past five or so years, and I've come to doubt its viability in the next five or so, or maybe ever. Allentown is proving me wrong regarding similar doubts about completion of American Parkway, but a six-lane 22, even in my lifetime, still seems a bridge too far.
Developers can be required to contribute to road projects through transportation impact fees imposed by municipalities, but state law establishes rigorous guidelines for those charges. For example, municipal officials can't impose fees based on whim and use the money to relieve existing traffic congestion. That's only fair; whether or not we support particular projects, developers' rights and interests need to be protected. The specified roadwork can address only the additional traffic expected from the development, Gurinko said, though as he and Cunningham pointed out, traffic flow overall on the affected roads (Race Street, for example) should be improved after work is complete.
Gurinko foresees numerous speed-bumps on the road to impact fees' from FedEx being applied to the Route 22 widening. Right off the starting line, "Route 22 doesn't go through Allen Township," he said. The fees can be imposed only on specified areas within municipalities, each not to exceed 7 square miles in area; multiple areas must be established to cover the entirety of larger municipalities.
Another roadblock facing the prospect of a $10 billion-a-year company like FedEx Ground contributing to the estimated $240 million widening of 22 between 15th Street and Airport Road is the limited impact the traffic expected from FedEx would have on the highway, Gurinko said.
The traffic study conducted by Pidcock Co. of Allentown projects that FedEx will generate an estimated 14,800 vehicles per day, 1,800 of them tractor-trailers. "That has a tremendous impact on Willowbrook Road," Gurinko said. "Once you get to 22, 1,800 trucks is still a lot of trucks, but throughout the course of a day,  sees much more [truck traffic] than that. … As you go to higher-order roads, you get more dilution" of added volume, because existing traffic on 22 is so great.
In addition, the package center will be a 24-hour facility, "So you have a great spreading-out of that traffic" over time. Peak-hour traffic is expected to account for only 8 to 10 percent of the total.
If this project continues to advance, I'm sure FedEx will deliver an oversize package of road improvements on Race, Willowbrook and Airport, with some of our money tossed in. A good corporate citizen should be more than willing.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to email@example.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.