Q: Now that much of the Route 378/Hill-to-Hill Bridge/Route 412 reconfiguration in Bethlehem has been completed, I find myself with a traffic dilemma. I frequently drive east on Third Street, intending to turn left (north) onto New Street and the Fahy Memorial Bridge. With the new lane configuration, at what point should I enter the 'left turn only' lane? I've seen folks drive all the way in the left lane along this stretch, from the former Perkins restaurant, before finally making the left onto the bridge. Myself and others enter the turn lane later, after passing the Banana Factory entrance and Northampton Street. I would think you shouldn't enter the turn lane until you mean to turn, much like on roads where you don't enter the 'both ways' shared center turn lane until you intend to make your turn.
— Tony Cox, Bethlehem
A: You're right about the proper use of the shared, center left-turn lanes, Tony. With that design, drivers in either direction can use the center lane for left turns, assuming the lane is vacant. Potholes can develop in cases where motorists in both directions simultaneously try to use the turn lane at roughly the same place; if both parties enter the lane too soon, they can find themselves at a bumper-to-bumper dead stop, neither party close enough to the turn to execute it. There could even be a collision.
The ride on Third Street is not quite as rough. Head-on confrontations won't be part of the scenery, and though side-swipes and angle accidents are possible, their severity should be limited.
It's not a perfect turn-lane design, PennDOT and city engineers agree. But they contend it's a good choice given the restrictions imposed by conditions, most notably the relatively narrow width of Third Street, and the relative lengths of the turn lanes.
"We would have liked to have two through lanes" for eastbound traffic, along with the continuous left-turn lane, PennDOT engineer Dennis Toomey said. Alas, there was not enough room for that.
Because three left-turn opportunities appear in rapid succession eastbound, between the Second Street ramp/Brodhead Avenue and New Street — a jaunt of less than 950 feet, not counting the "taper" cross-hatch area painted on the roadway at the start — the turn-lane design options are limited.
The first left-turn lane begins where the taper ends, and the first turn, upon us immediately, leads to the popular Banana Factory. The next left onto Northampton Street comes up only about 200 feet later, and a mere 125 feet after that, the left onto New Street and the bridge.
Technically, the center lane should be thought of as three separate turn lanes, and motorists should enter them when the lane begins, and no sooner — that's your interpretation, Tony. It works that way for cars headed to the Banana Factory, because the turn appears so quickly; the turn lane is so short, you can't avoid entering at the beginning or you'd be past the turn.
It gets complicated after that, though. Many people enter the turn lane before reaching Northampton Street, but continue straight rather than turning onto Northampton as directed by the road-surface arrow. The trouble is, those motorists can block the path of those such as yourself who correctly wait to enter the lane after the Northampton Street turn.
But there's a problem with waiting to enter the turn lane, too: The turn lane between Northampton and New is so short, it quickly fills with cars stopped at the red light or waiting for westbound through traffic at New. There's room for only three, maybe four cars before the queue reaches the break for the Northampton Street turn. At heavy-traffic times, people intending to turn onto New instinctively line up behind that queue. Obviously it wouldn't make sense to stop in the right (through) lane, blocking traffic there, waiting for left-turners to clear from the turn lane. As a result of this phenomenon, I think many people get in the habit of entering the turn lane early.
"If it's stacked up at New, you have to get in" to the turn lane prior to Northampton, city Public Works Director Mike Alkhal said.
Toomey agreed. Had they striped the lane before Northampton Street as a combined left-turn/through lane, people intending lefts onto New would get stuck behind anyone waiting to turn onto Northampton, he said. Of course, that surely happens now, since that's the way many people are using the turn lane anyway, which is your whole point, Tony. Those waiting can become frustrated, moving to the right lane to get around the stuck left-turner, into the path of possible through traffic there. But the engineers feel that offering the option in a formal way would only worsen matters.
Toomey cited another potential problem stemming from arrows indicating left or through left at Northampton Street: People might think they have the option of going straight at New as well, he said. Engineers definitely want all left-lane traffic at New to turn left.
The only logical advice is to approach all your movements carefully along this stretch, Tony. It's imperfect, as the engineers readily admit, but overall, flow on Third Street is the greatly improved from the previous design.
In a change that may not affect this particular problem, but should improve the flow in the area even more, PennDOT is designing a new north-south street to link Second and Third streets. To be just west of the Banana Factory parking lot, the unnamed $515,000 two-way road is expected to be built next year. A Hummer's worth of truck traffic runs between Second and Third, and there's no easy two-way route for big rigs in the current configuration.
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