Traffic will be a taxing matter if Costco proceeds

Q: I enjoyed your recent article on the FedEx traffic concerns. As you know, Hamilton Crossings (Costco and other stores) is being reviewed by Lower Macungie Township commissioners, and a vote is due by June 5th, according to Patrick Lester's recent article. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission reviewed this development last year and advised Lehigh County commissioners that there would be traffic concerns for the Krocks Road/Route 222 Bypass interchange. It's my understanding that a traffic study commissioned by PennDOT also foresees problems along the 222 corridor, with Costco and other development proposals in the pipeline. Please address the traffic issues related to the Costco plan and other development along the Bypass. We are very concerned, considering the tie-ups we have seen at the Krocks interchange.

— John DeSanto, Lower Macungie Township

A: With the high beams trained intently on the tax-financing issues regarding the controversial Hamilton Crossings development, potential traffic problems, though they have been cited, seem to have drifted into the shadows by comparison.

Among the differences between the FedEx and Hamilton Crossings proposals — an industrial plant versus a shopping center, varied road systems serving the respective facilities — is the fact that the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission gave FedEx a clear green light, but offered only a yellow at best for the Crossings, would-be site of the vaunted Costco store.

The FedEx proposal overall meets regional development goals as specified in the commission's long-range plan — in planning parlance, it is consistent with the plan, according to Chief Transportation Planner Joe Gurinko. Hamilton Crossings is inconsistent with those objectives, for many reasons outlined in a May 2013 letter the township Planning Commission.

The regional planners concluded that the traffic improvements planned at that time "will not mitigate the project impacts" to an acceptable level. However, Gurinko said last week that alterations to the traffic plan in the past year could have changed that situation.

He may be right: A month ago, the Crossings traffic plan secured one level of PennDOT approval, so long as the developers agree to undertake the improvements that have been worked out between the developers' traffic engineers and those from the state.

A short-cut version of what Hamilton Crossings proposes includes construction of a four-way signalized intersection on Krocks Road consisting of high-volume driveways to serve the development, which would grace both sides of Krocks. A driveway with traffic signals also is planned on Hamilton Boulevard opposite the Ethan Allen furniture store to access the eastern portion of Hamilton Crossings, as well as a driveway to serve a planned 12-pump gas station and convenience store also on the eastern side. A right-in, right-out driveway with a "deceleration lane" is planned on Krocks to service the western portion.

In addition, planned at the bypass/Krocks interchange depicted in the photo are an extra westbound left-turn lane on the bypass for turns onto Krocks, the widening of Krocks for its matching receiving lane, and construction of a collector-distributor roadway parallel to the bypass.

State engineers specify that all improvements should be done to accommodate "the future addition of a third through lane on [the bypass] and/or [an] eventual diamond interchange" at the intersection.

A host of similar requirements — widening, turn lanes, driveways, new traffic signals, traffic-signal phasing and more — are scheduled for other portions of Krocks, the Krocks/Hamilton Boulevard intersection and other roads and driveways proposed by the developers.

Jeremy Fogel of the development group said most of these traffic improvements, cited in the PennDOT letter informing developers of the conditional approval, have been worked out between the parties over a lengthy period.

"We've been working collaboratively with PennDOT over the last number of years," Fogel said. "We're on the same page as PennDOT" and intend to implement the improvements cited in the letter, he said.

Lower Macungie Planning Director Sara Pandl said though it's early in the process, it's her understanding that: "They're incorporating [PennDOT's] suggestions into the design. I'm not sure about every little detail, but I have not heard any objections" from Hamilton Crossings officials, Pandl said.

She noted that the township engineer is still reviewing the plans, and that developers still need a highway occupancy permit from PennDOT, so their journey is far from over. But clearly a lot will be done to mitigate the impact of all the new traffic this massive development (131/2 acres, 2,500 parking spaces) would generate.

Assuming the developers do make all the improvements specified by PennDOT throughout the review process, will it be enough to keep traffic flowing smoothly enough through the area, including on both the bypass and the boulevard? Nobody really knows for sure, not even the traffic engineers.

But Fogel is confident the estimated $11 million worth of improvements will handle the added traffic flow more than adequately.

"I certainly understand the public's concern" about possible traffic problems resulting from large-scale retail development such as this, Fogel said. "With the improvements, we will fully mitigate the [traffic] impact of our project," he said.

In addition, "It's not to our benefit" for residents to associate Hamilton Crossings with traffic jams, he said. "We want to make sure it's convenient so people want to go there."

Assuming the project advances, I'm not sure how the potential traffic issues will be resolved, John. As with court cases, the opposing sides probably could hire dueling traffic engineers to make compelling cases in both directions.

There is an issue that has perplexed me since word of the Costco chain's coming to the Lehigh Valley first hit the showroom floor back in 2005, when it was cited as a possible tenant in what became the Airport Center on Airport Road just off Route 22. (That did not happen, of course.)

Why in the name of Ferdinand Porsche is there so much fuss over a Costco store? My colleague Bill White expertly parodied the lust for Costco in his Feb. 1 column (available at mcall.com). I'm told it's basically a "shoppers club" chain with generally "upscale" merchandise compared with the club-store chains we've had here for years.

Please explain to me, Costco proponents, what all the fuss is about.

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to hartzell@mcall.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.

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