The Reading Area Transportation Study group unanimously approved a $274.8 million four-year transportation improvement plan, but there is much uncertainty about how the coronavirus pandemic will affect it.
RATS is required by law to approve funding for transportation projects by the end of July without considering unexpected circumstances, like the coronavirus pandemic that required Pennsylvania residents to shelter in place for several months.
The four-year plan, which was approved earlier this month, will be reviewed by PennDOT and finalized in October.
Alan D. Piper, Berks County transportation planner, said the pandemic did not impact the approved plan, but will most likely affect its implementation.
“Until we know exactly how much funding may be lost and in what specific funding category, we cannot make specific project-level statements regarding specific potential cuts,” Piper said.
Piper said the four-year plan accounts for the best possible funding base available and with an additional $312 million in a discretionary fund that is expected to be available in 2027.
The four-year plan includes $202.1 million for 107 highway and bridge projects, including improvements to Routes 222 and 422.
It also includes $62.7 million for BARTA bus expenses and upgrades.
Piper notified the RATS group last summer of the state’s new strategy to focus on interstate highways, resulting in a $68 million reduction in funding for Berks highways during the next four fiscal years.
An additional $270 million for Interstate 78 upgrades is already secured in the budget. The construction project includes upgrades extending from exit 35 in Greenwich Township to the Lehigh County line and intersection improvements. Parts of the highway do not have shoulders.
Numerous accidents and fatalities have occurred on Interstate 78. Most recently, a tow-truck driver was killed Tuesday while assisting a disabled vehicle on the interstate in Bethel Township.
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To accommodate PennDOT’s reallocation of funding to interstate highways, the Berks transportation planners scaled back projects and stretched them out over a longer time frame.
The projects most impacted by PennDOT’s reallocation to interstates are the Route 422 West Shore Bypass and Route 222 projects, the two local highways used most by commuters.
Piper said that Route 422 and 222 upgrades are the two big-ticket items in the budget. Funding for both state highways are included in the long-range plans.
“The plan we adopted lays the groundwork for moving forward with those projects by funding the necessary pre-construction engineering phases,” Piper said.
For the 422 project, preventive maintenance includes upgrades to bridges over the Schuylkill River and Brentwood Drive.
The project calls for replacing a bridge at the intersection with I-176 and reconfiguring the westbound ramp of I-176 in Cumru Township. It also includes widening a bridge over the Schuylkill River and Norfolk Southern railroad.
The long-range plan calls for expanding the highway to six lanes from the Penn Avenue interchange to the Lancaster Avenue business interchange.
The Route 222 project includes constructing additional roundabouts to ease traffic congestion.
Construction is ongoing on a Route 222 project to widen the intersection at Route 73 and constructing roundabouts at the intersection of Genesis Drive and Schaefer Road. The expected completion is in 2022.
The four-year plan also includes construction of a roundabout on Long Lane in Maxatawny Township.
Additional roundabouts included in the plan are at Richmond Road in Richmond Township and Pleasant Hill Road in Maidencreek Township.
Improvements on Route 12, also known as the Warren Street Bypass, also are included in the plan.
Road work along Route 61 extending from Perry Township to the Schuylkill County line is also in the plan.
Piper acknowledged that the four-year plan may require changes as additional information from PennDOT about loss of funding due to the coronavirus is available.
PennDOT has announced in May that the state agency anticipates a reduction of $800 million in revenues in 2020 due to fewer motorists driving.
PennDOT’s annual $10 billion annual budget includes $3.7 billion in gas taxes.
Consumers pay a 57.6 cents tax to PennDOT and an 18.5 cent tax to the federal government for every gallon of gas that is purchased.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was unable to pay PennDOT a July payment of $112 million that goes to fund transit systems.