New highway signs point to emergency detour routes

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Lisa Goetz of West View is among many motorists noticing detour signs with various color designations popping up along major highways in the region.

The ones that caught her attention have been posted along Route 19/Perry Highway and read "I-279 Detour" with orange arrows pointing north and brown arrows pointing south.

The signs aren't for moving traffic during the latest construction project. They are being placed as a precaution in case a major incident or emergency closes the interstate.

"I was envisioning a nightmarish mass detour through West View," Ms. Goetz said.

That's possible, but it shouldn't be for an everyday, months-long project.

"They're emergency detours for motorists who may be diverted off of an interstate or an expressway due to a crash, natural disaster, hazardous material spill or other unplanned incident," said Jim Struzzi, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 11 spokesman.

Linda Scharl, who lives in the North Hills, also wondered about so many I-279 detour signs. "Surely they're not going to reroute I-279 onto Ivory Avenue," she said.

That's possible, too, but officials hope the detours are never used.

"We hope, but you never know," said Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT's chief spokesman in Harrisburg. "We will have these options available in case we ever do have to shut down an interstate," including an I-279 detour that goes through Ms. Goetz's small community.

The contingency plans are being carried out in various corridors throughout the region including I-70, I-79, I-80, I-279 and I-376 and Routes 19/51, 22, 28, 30, 60, 65 and 422, where parts of heavily traveled roads could be closed for hours or even days because of a major incident.

The signs -- not to be confused with those designating the multi-colored "belt" routes throughout Allegheny County -- come in blue, brown, orange, green, black and red. They'll continue to be installed over coming months.

The program is being financed out of individual PennDOT county maintenance budgets. Neither county-by-county costs nor statewide costs were available.

The impetus for so many potential detours grew out of a February 2006 state emergency when snow and ice closed three Central Pennsylvania highways for more than 24 hours, including I-78, where some cars, SUVs, buses and trucks were stranded for more than 24 hours and Gov. Ed Rendell interceded.

Emergency detours originated under the administration of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, who was in Uniontown for a "Capital for a Day" event when PennDOT closed I-70 not far away after engineers uncovered a structural problem on a Youghiogheny River bridge.

For days, traffic was sent over a circuitous detour using Routes 51 and 119 through Fayette County to get to and from the New Stanton interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Shortly thereafter, PennDOT permanently designated the emergency route using smaller, black trailblazer signs that stand today.

Similarly, PennDOT designated a "blue" detour in both directions on I-79 between the Grove City and Slippery Rock interchanges during a bridge emergency.

Because they were established about 15 years ago, those detours will remain intact.

Under the new program, an I-79 detour between the Carnegie interchange and the Parkway West will have motorists follow a "black detour" for I-79 north and "green detour" for I-79 south, for example.

Both will utilize Noblestown Road, West Main Street, Academy Street and the Parkway West to and from I-79. Both pass through parts of Carnegie, Collier, Scott and Rosslyn Farms.

PennDOT District 11's official document covering the emergency detour routes acknowledges that, when put into effect, they will pose challenges. It reads:

"It must be stressed that in most all cases, the emergency detour route will experience severe traffic congestion problems during most of the day, with acute problems occurring in the morning and evening peak periods.

"Therefore, during any emergency, every effort must be made to solicit local and state police assistance to reopen at least one lane of the freeway as soon as possible and to even consider constructing crossovers if the closure will be long term."

The document is available on the Web at, but it's long -- 213 pages. Click on "Traffic and Maps" and then "Emergency Detour Routes."

Joe Grata can be reached at .


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