The tricky part of interchange changes will be the horse and buggy traffic

By on March 28, 2018

Horse and buggy travelers appear appreciative of Ephrata Township’s safety concerns regarding proposed changes at the busy state Route 322/222 Interchange.

The new $7.7 million safety overhaul scheduled to start next year, called a Diverging Diamond Interchange or DDI, will be the second of its kind in Pennsylvania but the only one where buggy traffic has been a factor.

“The horse and buggies was one of the challenges we faced,” said PennDOT project manager David Fratangeli. Ephrata Township officials, an engineering firm representative and two local horse team drivers met last month to discuss how buggies will travel through the revamped interchange.

“They were kind of the voice of a bigger group,” said Ephrata Township Manager Steven Sawyer. He said the father and son team drivers seemed pleased that the plan includes 8-foot road shoulders throughout most of the design to accommodate buggy and bike traffic.

“They thought the 8-foot shoulders were great,” he said. Sawyer noted that the plan isn’t perfect and has a “tricky part.” He said many buggies on eastbound Route 322 turn onto Hahnstown Road. They will need to move from the shoulder to the left lane far enough in advance so they don’t have to cross several lanes too close to that intersection.

Ephrata Police Lt. Thomas Shumaker said that is similar to what team drivers do now. He said they work their way to the left on eastbound 322 after clearing the Route 222 overpasses.

The two team drivers discussed that particular issue at the Jan. 11 meeting but no other design seemed feasible. “Both men felt this design is better than the existing one,” Sawyer said.

Fratangeli said the intent is for buggies to use the 8-foot shoulders when possible. He said existing shoulders immediately to the east of the interchange now vary from 10 to 12 feet wide while existing shoulders directly to the west range from non-existent to 5 feet.

He said eastbound 322 will have a standard 8-foot wide shoulder throughout the DDI to accommodate buggies. However, the westbound design differs between the Route 222 southbound off-ramp and Walmart. He explained that after a westbound buggy passes the southbound off-ramp, the buggy will have to merge into traffic. There is no room to build an 8-foot shoulder

Sawyer said the township had hoped PennDOT would extend the project west on Route 322 where two lanes now merge into one. He said an additional one or two lanes is needed westbound to Pleasant Valley Road.

“It is a choke point for westbound traffic, especially during rush hour,” Shumaker said. But he said it isn’t the site of many collisions.

The DDI will transform Route 322 into a figure-8 shape that PennDOT says will eliminate most left-handed turns into oncoming traffic, decrease conflict points, accidents and traffic backups. Eastbound 322 lanes will cross over to their left before reaching the Route 222 overpasses. Westbound 322 traffic will also cross over to their left before reaching the Route 222 bridges. Five traffic signals will be added between existing lights at Walmart and Hahnstown Road.

“These improvements will certainly make it safer than what we have today,” Sawyer said.

The interchange has been the scene of fatalities such as a crash that killed a Berks County motorcyclist in August 2008. Jordan Horst was riding a motorcycle eastbound on 322 when he collided with a truck that had turned left from Route 322 onto the Route 222 southbound on-ramp. A roadside memorial still stands at that location.

“That’s exactly one of the conflict points we will be eliminating with the DDI,” Shumaker said. The officer said he is anxious to see the project completed and that PennDOT is doing its best to decrease conflict points.

The combined width of Route 322’s new traffic lanes and shoulders is limited due to it passing beneath the Route 222 spans. “We are not touching the 222 structure,” Fratangeli said.

PennDOT has estimated that each day, about 20,000 vehicles travel that stretch of Route 322 and more than 50,000 travel the Route 222 overpasses. Fratangeli said there are no statistics for how many horse and buggies pass through the interchange.

On one recent morning, a horse and wagon was parked at the eight-bay buggy shed at Walmart. Two women in that wagon later traveled eastbound on Route 322 after rush hour had passed and there was relatively little traffic.

“They pick times that don’t coincide with rush hour and heavy traffic,” Sawyer said of team drivers.

Fratangeli said detour planning for the project began about two weeks ago and will continue for several months.

“We’re still on track for fall 2019,” he said. Construction is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

He described some people’s initial reaction when they see a DDI design. “What the heck’s going on?” he said. PennDOT rolled out the local plan at a November open house at the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company.

“I was surprised at how well it was received,” he said. The project manager said PennDOT will use “lessons learned” from building the state’s only other DDI in Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania. He said the interchange along Interstate 70 that opened in September 2016 has been well accepted.

Fratangeli said lessons to be applied in the Ephrata area project include: the public plans display that was held and featured an information video on how to navigate a DDI; public outreach to continue education about a DDI as the design process progresses; and traffic control and how to handle switching traffic into the new configuration during construction.

The project manager addressed the potential for wrong-way driving in the DDI. He said the design directs vehicles into the proper path. Concrete glare screens have been proposed to help channel vehicles and there will be appropriate signage and pavement markings to help drivers navigate through the interchange.

“I think we have a good design,” Fratangeli said.

For more project information, visit penndot.gov/regionaloffices/district-8 and scroll to district links where you can click on construction projects/roadwork to see the 322/222 project graphics and information. Ephrata Township’s website also has information at ephratatownship.org.

Bonnie Adams is a correspondent with The Ephrata Review. She welcomes your comments and questions at bonniebadams@yahoo.com.

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