PennDot has big changes in mind for the Schuylkill Expressway

For the hundreds of thousands who drive the Schuylkill Expressway each day, gridlocked traffic or near-miss accidents are just part of the harrowing, frustrating experience.

The state’s transportation secretary, Leslie Richards, is proposing a better way.

During a news conference at a park-and-ride near the junction of I-76 and I-476, Richards outlined a multipronged plan that seeks to both improve driving on the highway and offer alternative modes of travel.

 The most dramatic change proposed is opening more than six miles of road shoulders to traffic during peak travel times. In addition, the PennDot proposal includes a mosaic of improvements and technology upgrades. Some, like electronic speed-limit signs that can be changed depending on road conditions and signs recommending travel lanes, are designed to warn drivers of slowdowns and accidents ahead to reduce the need for abrupt braking.  Other changes, from improved rail service and upgraded bike trails to PennDot control of traffic signals on municipal roads near the highway, should encourage drivers to use alternative routes, officials said.

“We believe this strategy will help reduce congestion on I-76 as well as increasing mobility,” Richards said.

The groundwork for some of the minor changes will begin in 2017, and it will be years before the full package of alterations will be complete. The total cost of the projects is not yet determined, and PennDot still needs to secure funding, but opening the shoulders, which will require widening in some places, should cost about $125 million, Richards said. Construction would begin in about five years.

The changes are slated for the 12 miles of the Schuylkill Expressway and surrounding roads between Route 202 and Route 1. The road is the major east-west roadway connecting Philadelphia with Montgomery County, and ultimately ties the city to the Blue Route and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Built in the 1950s, it is filled by 200,000 vehicles in Philadelphia and 130,000 in Montgomery County each day. Adding lanes is a nonstarter due to the steep terrain or heavy development on either side of the highway. As a result, the overloaded road has seen 2,113 crashes in Montgomery County from 2011 to 2015. Six of those have been fatal, and 65 percent have been rear-end crashes, a testament to the dangers of abrupt braking on the road, PennDot says.

“The conventional wisdom has been for much too long that you just can’t do anything with the I-76 corridor,” Richards said. 

The first changes drivers may notice are electronic signs between the Turnpike and Route 1. The $2.2 million in signage will adjust speed limits and alert drivers to traffic jams ahead. The signs, which should be online by 2018, will adjust based on observations provided by an array of cameras, travel-time readers, and PennDot vehicles along the highway.

PennDot also is seeking to control within the next two to four years about 150 traffic signals at intersections in nine municipalities to improve traffic flow on roads that run near the Schuylkill Expressway, such as Ridge Avenue, Route 23, Route 1, and Route 202. With the ability to coordinate traffic signals on roads that are alternatives to I-76, Richards believes PennDot can make those routes more attractive to drivers, diverting cars off the highway.

Opening the shoulders to traffic will take longer due to the widening needed, and may be accompanied by traffic signals at entrance ramps and interchanges to regulate traffic flow onto the highway and signs offering drivers lane recommendations. The longest stretch of road where shoulders may be open for travel, about 4.5 miles, runs from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to I-476. A shorter stretch of shoulder could be open from Route 1 to Belmont Avenue.

Allowing vehicles onto the shoulders shouldn’t compromise safety, Richards said. PennDot has consulted with emergency service providers to ensure rescue and police vehicles are able to get to the scenes of accidents. PennDot also plans to have areas where vehicles can pull off the road every half-mile on stretches where shoulders are available for travel.

Opening shoulders to traffic, known as hard-shoulder running, is used in numerous European nations and in some places in the United States, including on I-66 outside Washington. That road, like the Schuylkill Expressway, is a nightmare during rush hours. A 2013 Federal Highway Administration report noted that hard-shoulder use on I-66 during peak travel hours did not contribute to accidents on the road.

Transportation experts and activists familiar with the area questioned whether opening the shoulders is a viable long-term solution to congestion on the highway. What is needed, said Michael Noda, an area transportation activist and blogger, are tolls. Charging for access to the road would force some drivers to seek other routes or other modes of travel, he said.

PennDot didn’t consider tolling as an option for the highway, said PennDot spokesman Gene Blaum.

Among the steps designed to divert vehicles off the road are major changes from SEPTA. The rail agency plans to make the Manayunk/Norristown Line, which runs near the highway, the beneficiary of new equipment. Some of the 13 new locomotives expected to arrive in 2018 will be dedicated to that line, along with some of the 45 bi-level cars SEPTA expects to receive in 2020. The line currently handles 1.7 million trips a year, SEPTA general manager Jeff Knueppel said, and the additional cars will help increase capacity, making the train a more attractive alternative to driving.

SEPTA also is planning to build a proper elevated train platform in Conshohocken to replace the street-level stop where riders currently board. The $10 million to $15 million project likely will take two to three years to complete, Knueppel said.

“I have been waiting my entire career at SEPTA for the right time or the right opportunity to replace or improve the Conshohocken station,” he said.