Keeping Southpointe traffic moving

As Southpointe grows, steps taken to make traffic flow smoothly

January 13, 2013
Traffic exits Southpointe after 5 p.m. at Morganza Road in Cecil Township in mid-December. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Roger Carrier was seeing red – literally and figuratively.

He was among the first business residents of Southpointe in the mid-1990s, with TriLine Associates Inc. Traffic was one of the company’s specialties, and one of his.

The volume of vehicles in and around the burgeoning mixed-use business and residential park was marginal at the time, but as buildings went up and more companies located there, gridlock became more common.

The worst spot was the Southpointe exit ramp off Interstate 79 southbound. There was a stop sign at the end, where a commuter could turn right onto Southpointe Boulevard and enter the park, or left toward Morganza Road and the adjacent park-and-ride lots. This was a four-way intersection where drivers took turns assuming the right-of-way.

Morning backups along the southbound ramp sometimes resulted in a lineup of cars a half-mile onto I-79, leaving the domino in peril of being toppled by a high-speed driver unaware of the jam ahead.

“For me, as a traffic engineer, tail-light glass on an interstate is ugly,” said Carrier, also principal of Hershey Leasing, and a former chief engineer for the state Department of Transportation’s Pittsburgh District.

“Anytime traffic is backed up onto an interstate, it’s a serious matter.”

It took a few years, but a serious remedy virtually eliminated that serious matter, and drastically reduced tail-light debris. In February 2011, a traffic signal replaced the stop sign at the bottom of the ramp, enhancing four-way flow at the northern, more heavily traversed end of the park.

“The light straightened that out,” Carrier said.

For Southpointe commuters, it was a fortuitous and necessary change. But it wasn’t the only one that, in various stages, has helped to ensure efficient traffic movement in a concentrated area where an estimated 8,000 work and about 560 live, and where in two years several thousand more could be earning their pay.

Additional signals, wider roads, turning lanes, employee flex time, a wider bridge and a vigilant Cecil Township police force also have helped to minimize the hassle of navigating Southpointe, which has evolved into a mini-city that will expand even more with the completion of Southpointe II and Town Center.

Some people who are close to the situation – business owners, public officials and residents – are applauding these measures and are confident that the transit nightmares that could have been may never be.

Measuring success

“You have to ask people who use it,” said Bill Sember, director of operations for the Washington County Authority, when asked to appraise traffic along Southpointe Boulevard.

Rich Barcelona uses the boulevard frequently; he lives and works in Southpointe. The chairman of Bailey Oxides and owner of Bailey Center I and II endorses the improvements, saying they “have been an absolute success that meets the needs of increasing traffic flow.”

The boulevard is the spine of the park, splitting it and serving as its nervous system. It runs about 3 miles from a T intersection at Morganza Road to a more southernly point of Morganza. In recent years, that spine has been realigned.

Nearly all of the roadway has been expanded to two lanes in each direction, with a speed limit of 25 mph. There is a traffic light at each Morganza merge point and six between, synchronized to expedite traffic movement, and a few stop signs. The bridge near the south end was widened years ago.

These are conditions for an easy, breezy ride.

Sember’s board is the overseer of all construction projects and infrastructure improvements in Southpointe II, and the body that has approved modifications along the boulevard.

The Morganza signals began operating in January 2010 and Carrier’s favorite traffic light in the world was installed a year later. Then came the pivotal first phase of a $4 million project in which the boulevard was expanded from two to four lanes and turning lanes were added along a mile-long section, from Technology Drive to the railroad tracks near the southern entrance. That was completed in the fall of 2011. Phase II featured the installation of the other traffic signals, which became fully operational early last year.

Only a short stretch of Southpointe Boulevard is still two lanes, from Technology Drive North to Technology Drive South, near the lake on Southpointe Golf Club.

“It was left that way by design,” Sember said. “That’s called a calming effect, which is done statewide. Everyone has an inclination to go a little faster (on a four-lane road). You come to two lanes, you have to slow down.”

He said that to make that strip four lanes lanes as well, other changes would have been necessary in that vicinity, including the elimination of trees. “We didn’t want to disturb that.”

There are days

Traffic congestion does occur at times, which isn’t surprising for an area with so many businesses, employees, construction workers, truckers transporting goods and Penguins fans motoring to Iceoplex practices.

Stephanie Urchick, executive director of the Southpointe CEO Association, said traffic tends to peak around noon and 5 p.m.

Southpointe has few dining venues, forcing many employees to leave the park for lunch. And 5 p.m. is a standard quitting time,

“Because I can vary my assignments, I tend to stay away (from Southpointe traffic) at peak times,” said Urchick, of North Strabane.

She said that in an attempt to minimize commuter woes, a number of Southpointe companies allow their employees to work flex-time shifts. These workers have the option to start at, say, 7:30 a.m. and leave at 3:30 p.m.

“With the number of people we have in the park, if everyone left at the same time, we might have a problem,” Barcelona said. “This park is perfect for flex time and this is the era for flex time. If you can work flex hours, you don’t see the traffic issues you expect here.”

Sember, who as a longtime county official has witnessed the majority of the Southpointe boom, appreciates the flex concept.

“When you have that many people working there,” he said, “if there weren’t a staggering of hours, you might have to wait for a light or two. But,” he added, “that’s a small inconvenience to pay for going to a job every day.”

Don Hodor, executive director of the Southpointe Chamber of Commerce, lives a few doors from Barcelona. Like his neighbor, he is thrilled with what the modifications have wrought to Southpointe Boulevard.

“It’s been a significant change for the better,” Hodor said. “The lights are coordinated. In addition, they have sensors that can detect if a car is coming. You can call them ‘intelligent traffic lights.’ If there are no cars on Technology Drive, cars on Southpointe Boulevard are allowed to go. You won’t be sitting there for a minute waiting.

“Also, if you are moving too quickly, it will become red to slow you down.”

Hodor also praised the Cecil police for efficiently enforcing the park speed limit and for being especially vigilant against those who prefer the rolling stop. “They really watch for that.”

They also closely monitor early-evening traffic speeds, said police Chief John Pushak. “That’s because people are more eager to go home than come to work,” he said, chuckling slightly.

“We do have people who have trouble obeying the 25-miles-per-hour limit. We make some traffic stops. But that is not a major concern.

“Under normal circumstances, we don’t have any problems with the flow of traffic. We have no complaints unless there’s a malfunctioning of a signal or there is an incident on the interstate.”

Like, perhaps, a car being bashed from behind – now a rare occurrence.

This article was originally published in the January edition of Southpointe Today.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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