State Department of Transportation officials got an earful during a public meeting Tuesday from residents angry about a proposed $50 million Interstate 70 interchange project in the Bentleyville area.
Meant as an olive branch to gather public input and appease locals, the gathering instead seemed to further irritate the dozens of residents who crammed the Bentleyville Volunteer Fire Department social hall to voice their opposition to a part of the project that calls for the closing of the Ginger Hill interchange, less than half a mile from the Bentleyville exit.
"What we want is for you to leave the Ginger Hill ramps open," said Kirsten Donatelli of Canonsburg, who travels to the area each day for work.
"My biggest concern is that we're going to lose Pittsburgh Road [at the Ginger Hill exit]," said Bentleyville Mayor Tom Brown, who said he favored the project when it was unveiled last year but has since reconsidered after realizing the impact it would have on people who live and work nearby. "The Bentleyville exit is already too congested."
Bentleyville volunteer fire Chief Ron Sicchitano said the fire department would need an emergency access lane onto the highway if the Ginger Hill interchange is closed in order to respond quickly to accident scenes. Already, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration has denied such access, though officials plan to gather documentation for a new request.
"Give us a chance to go though that process," said PennDOT district executive Joe Szczur, who said he and other officials would try to convince the FHA of the necessity of the access lane.
State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, is also a fire chief in Canonsburg and said he understood the need for such access.
"I think one big thing is that since the original traffic study, things have changed a lot," he said. "We will be able to take that back to revisit it."
Officials from neighboring communities said they, too, are concerned about traffic and safety issues that could result from the closure.
"Our township is split in half by I-70 so we're going to have concerns about safety and maintenance," said Somerset Supervisor Dave Blackburn, who said he expected traffic between Carlton Road and the Kammerer exit -- the next nearest interchange to Bentleyville, about two miles away -- to increase.
Local business owner Charles Greyhosky said he was concerned that economic development and property values would suffer as a result of the closure.
PennDOT officials said they understood the concerns, but the number of accidents --- including fatalities -- in the area between the Ginger Hill and Bentleyville exits has made the issue impossible to ignore.
"People are getting hurt. People are getting killed," said Rachel Duda, PennDOT assistant district executive. "We have to do something."
According to data gathered by PennDOT, there have been 39 vehicle accidents between the two interchanges from 2006 to 2010, about three times greater than the state average.
"This is the most outdated section of interstate in the Commonwealth," said Mr. Szczur, who said the project is part of an overhaul of the 50-mile span of I-70 between New Stanton and Washington, including an assessment of each of the 21 exits along the route.
Mr. Szczur said that part of the interstate is "functionally inadequate," and too narrow to handle modern traffic volumes. Each day, he said, the 50-mile stretch sees about 70,000 vehicles, about 25 percent of which are large trucks.
And, in the years since drilling began in the Marcellus Shale, traffic in the area has increased overall by 30 percent, he said.
Project manager Steve Moore of MS Consultants Inc. in Coraopolis, said the closure of the Ginger Hill interchange is part of a new traffic safety calculation being used by PennDOT, which calls for a minimum of one mile between exits in an urban area and three miles between those in rural areas. Even using the urban calculation, the ramps between Ginger Hill and Bentleyville are far too close, he said, causing motorists to weave dangerously between lanes.
The close proximity is also confusing for drivers, Ms. Duda said.
Along with Ginger Hill, PennDOT may be closing or relocating other interchanges in the area, Ms. Duda said.
Along with the Ginger Hill closure, the proposal calls for a traffic roundabout to be installed along Wilson Road where it now intersects with the Bentleyville interchange, and other improvements on I-70, including wider berms and medians, and longer exit and entrance ramps.
In the proposal, set to break ground in the summer of 2015, a center left-turning lane and sidewalks would be installed on Wilson Road, which would also be widened. That road, PennDOT officials said, also has far more accidents than the state average, including 27 crashes between 2006 and 2010.
Residents and local officials said they doubted that the roundabout would be safe and efficient.
"Where do you have roundabouts in Pennsylvania?" Mayor Brown said. "I've never seen one."
Mr. Moore and Ms. Duda said roundabouts are frequently used in other states and will be used more often in future PennDOT projects. That design is now favored because of a study that showed they are 30 percent more efficient at moving traffic than signalized intersections, with a 40 percent reduction in accidents, including a 90 percent reduction in fatalities.
"It's a win, win, win situation for us," said Mr. Moore, who said roundabouts were also less costly than signals to install and maintain.
Other residents said they were concerned about more traffic congestion between Route 917 and Main Street in Bentleyville after the Ginger Hill closure and asked officials to consider installing a traffic light in the area. Though a study indicated it wasn't needed, Mr. Szczur said PennDOT would revisit the issue.
He said PennDOT will also re-evaluate whether the Ginger Hill interchange needs to be closed, but he warned residents not to get their hopes up.
The project should take two years to complete, and Mr. Szczur said PennDOT would hold more public meetings before construction begins. During construction, he said two lanes in each direction on I-70 would remain open. On the rare occasions when traffic would have be reduced to a single lane, work will be done during off-peak hours, he said.
Residents said they weren't discouraged by the response from PennDOT officials, and said they would continue pressing their case.
During the past 12 days, Ms. Donatelli has gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the Ginger Hill closure and said she plans to submit it to state officials soon.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.