Turnpike interchange on track for 2014 opening

Q: Do you know anything about the status of the new Turnpike entrance/exit at Route 903 in Penn Forest Township? They have been talking about this for over 20 years, and actually put the beginnings of a new bridge crossing over the Turnpike on Route 903 a couple of years ago. Nothing has happened, however, in the meantime. Looks like a lot of money has been spent with nothing to show for it.

— Betty Anton, Mertztown


A: Under construction since 2009, the $22.4 million Route 903 interchange of I-476 is designed to improve access to some of the popular Pocono Mountains attractions, many of which focus on sports and athletic activities and nature-based appreciation as well as the entertainment, fine dining, socializing and other amenities many travelers also enjoy.

The new interchange originally was expected to open in May 2012, but officials have pushed the date farther up the road several times. The current estimate for the checkered flag is fall 2014. Whenever the 903 finally opens, it will be the first new interchange on the Northeast Extension since Keyser Avenue near Scranton hit the showroom floor in 1992. Keyser had been the only interchange added since the Extension, now also known as I-476, debuted in 1957.

Route 903 also will be the first I-476 interchange at which cash payments will not be taken. There will be no one in the toll booths to take money. In fact, there will be no toll booths. Turnpike officials anticipate that electronic toll-collections will be used exclusively at all new interchanges, and the entire Turnpike is expected to "go cashless" in about four years.

Some warriors contend that cashless toll collection should be left by the roadside. But cashless toll roads eliminate the time- and gas-wasting slowdowns that are unavoidable with cash collection, as well as the chain-reaction accidents that can be spawned by these slowdowns. Opponents might be able to reduce the speed limit, but don't expect a traffic barrier for the nationwide conversion to cashless toll-road payments. You might as well try to halt Internet innovation. On the road ahead, motorists will reflect on mile-long lines at toll booths with wonderment, astonished not only that drivers were willing to waste so much time and money, but that they'd pay for the privilege.

In short, the only reason we've had toll booths up to now is that no better way existed. Cashless-collection technology blows that ancient model clean off the road. E-ZPass needs a tune-up for some of its enforcement and customer-service procedures, as revealed by my colleague Frank Warner's recent experience. (If you missed Frank's July 20 story relating his frustrating trip with the Jersey Turnpike's E-ZPass bureaucracy, you gotta check it out at mcall.com.) But in concept, all-electronic tolling is solid as a Mack truck.

Serious proposals for a new Poconos interchange had been discussed since at least 1985, when officials kicked the tires on a partial interchange, but the Turnpike decided traffic volume wasn't great enough. That's changed, of course, as population in the area has surged like a Porsche 911. (A separate late-1990s plan for an interchange at Mountain Road in Washington Township, just south of the Lehigh Tunnel, never really gained traction.)

It was a slow road at first. Former Carbon County state Rep. Keith McCall began pushing for a Turnpike interchange in Penn Forest Township in the 1980s, and by the early 2000s, the plan was gaining speed. By late 2004, Paul Parsells, executive director of the House Transportation Committee at the time, was optimistic about the Route 903 plan: "It's on the Turnpike [Commission's] 10-year plan … and it will get done, I guarantee you. As far as we're concerned, it's a go."

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo agreed, saying at the time that preliminary design could begin by spring 2005. That probably wasn't too far off the mark, considering construction began within four years. Officials could see that cash payments were steering toward the junkyard even then, with DeFebo predicting that no more cash-payment interchanges would be coming the Turnpike's way. The latest in electronic toll collections had made its Turnpike debut in June 2004, at the Warrendale Toll Plaza near Pittsburgh: Express E-ZPass, allowing customers to cruise through the toll gantries at 55 mph, or 10 times the posted speed at the "old" E-Zpass lanes.

Though the 903 interchange has hit some speed-bumps, blasting required for construction of the new access ramps is going on as we speak, with 20-minute traffic stoppages possible between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays for the next six weeks.

I found one aspect of the Turnpike's approach to the 903 interchange surprising: Initially, motorists without E-ZPass will be prohibited from using it. Anyone who uses it, even inadvertently, can expect a violation notice in the mail, though the violation can be appealed, DeFebo said.

That's the procedure already in place at the three existing cashless interchanges on the mainline Turnpike. According to plans, when the entire system converts to E-ZPass only, scheduled in 2018, motorists without E-ZPass will receive "regular" toll bills in the mail, their license plates having been "read" at the relevant entry and exit points. But that can't be implemented until all the interchanges are equipped with the license readers, DeFebo said. Without them, it's impossible to know at which interchanges motorists who used E-Zpass-only lanes entered or exited — an obvious point my engine computer had missed.

For everything to work properly, license-plate scanners must be installed at all interchanges, systemwide. Until that happens, motorists without E-ZPass should be careful to avoid E-ZPass-only lanes. Or better yet, they should wise up, buy the service, and start blowing past those toll-booth jams and saving money through the reduced toll amounts.

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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