Residents from the Bentleyville area filled the borough’s fire hall Monday to voice their concerns about proposed changes to local interchanges along a section of Interstate 70 deemed “functionally inadequate” by PennDOT officials.
“This is the most out-of-date section of interstate we have in the commonwealth,” said Joe Szczur, District 12 executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Szczur and other PennDOT officials were on hand to answer questions – and occasionally dodge arrows – from the public regarding the Bentleyville Interchange Improvement Project, which is part of a larger effort to bring the interstate up to par with modern-day criteria. Officials said the project’s contracts would open for bidding in June 2015.
While the road wasn’t initially built to be an interstate, Szczur said the converted I-70 now handles upward of 70,000 vehicles a day with a fourth of them being trucks thanks in part to the booming Marcellus Shale gas industry.
“We have some areas where overnight we have an increase in truck traffic of upwards of 30 percent,” he said. “That would be 20 to 30 years of normal traffic growth.”
The project calls for the widening of the median and shoulders along I-70, lengthening the ramp lanes, reconfiguring the Bentleyville interchange to include a roundabout, improving secondary roadways, adding a center turning lane to Wilson Road and eliminating the Route 917 (Pittsburgh Road) interchange at Ginger Hill.
The latter was the biggest concern for Bentleyville Mayor Tom Brown and a number of other residents who voiced their opinions.
Brown said many people use the Ginger Hill exits to get home and having to deal with increased truck traffic around the Bentleyville interchange is a “terrible experience.”
The Rev. Paul Peternel, pastor of Christian Assembly of God, said removing the Ginger Hill exits will force many members of his congregation to travel out of their way to get to the church.
“This pretty much eliminates why we located where we are,” he said.
Peternel said between 800 and 1,000 people have signed a petition to prevent the closing of the Exit 32A ramps.
Some officials from neighboring municipalities also spoke up, including Somerset Township Supervisor Dave Blackburn who said he is concerned about maintaining Carlton Drive and Ames Road, which are not built to handle increased traffic re-routed from the Bentleyville and Kammerer exits.
Local business owner Charles J. Greyhosky, president of Conveyer Specialties Inc. of Bentleyville, asked PennDOT officials to consider the economic impacts of removing the Ginger Hill interchange, which his company and other businesses frequently use. Like Blackburn, he also expressed concern about increased traffic on Carlton Drive.
Other residents called for a traffic light at Wilson Road and Main Street while some questioned the need for a roundabout near the truck stop off the Bentleyville interchange.
Steve Moore of MS Consultants, who is working alongside PennDOT on the project, explained that roundabouts move traffic 30 percent more efficiently and reduce crashes with injuries by 75 percent.
Rachel Duda, assistant district executive director of design at PennDOT, said she wasn’t a believer in roundabouts at first, making a reference to the Griswold family’s run in with one in the Chevy Chase film “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” but now understands they are safer and more efficient.
“People are getting hurt, people are getting killed and we need to do something about it,” she said.
With regard to emergencies, Bentleyville fire Chief Ron Sicchitano Sr. asked if further consideration had been given to increasing access for first responders, a concern also expressed by several residents. Szczur and Moore said they are still in the process of trying to get a plan approved.
As officials began to wrap up the public comment session, Moore tapped his head and said he gets it “loud and clear” that residents like the Ginger Hill exit ramps and dislike the proposed roundabout.