A state proposal to widen a segment of I-83 in Harrisburg to 12 lanes is causing concern among some city officials, who say it will increase noise and traffic congestion while costing the city tax revenue.
Concept drawings from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) published in October reveal plans to double the width of I-83 between 19th Street and the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, bringing the six-lane highway to 12 lanes of mainline and local traffic.
PennDOT predicts the new lanes would displace as many as 28 city residences and 20 businesses, mostly in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
The proposal, part of a larger plan to improve traffic flow and repair roads on the I-83 Capital Beltway, is still in the preliminary engineering phase, according to PennDOT community relations manager Greg Penny.
PennDOT developed the current concepts based on 20-year traffic projections and conversations with local stakeholders, including the city of Harrisburg. The project is still in its preliminary engineering phase, and construction may not begin until 2022.
But Harrisburg officials worry that current proposals will generate noise and congestion, eliminate taxable properties, and counteract local efforts to make Harrisburg friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists.
“Harrisburg’s street network can’t support what PennDOT will force into the city,” city Engineer Wayne Martin said. “The vision of Harrisburg as a state capital surrounded by a parking lot is not working. That’s not a sustainable future for us.”
The proposal would increase the number of mainline traffic lanes — those running the length of I-83 — from the current two lanes to three in each direction. It would also add two local “collector distributor” (CD) lanes on both sides for motorists traveling short segments along the highway, as well as exit lanes.
The intent of the CD system is to separate local traffic from mainline motorists, Penny said, and improve safety for local traffic merging on and off the interstate.
The result would be a 12-lane highway running from South Allison Hill to Shipoke. From 19th Street to 29th Street, the road would narrow again to four lanes in both directions.
PennDOT traffic studies also identified a need for an interchange at Cameron Street, a major north-south route through Harrisburg. Preliminary plans call for eliminating the current interchange at 13th Street and replacing it with a new one on Cameron.
Martin said that he’s not opposed to the Cameron Street interchange, which would take traffic away from Foose Elementary School on 13th Street.
But he and Mayor Eric Papenfuse balked at the proposal to double the width of the highway, especially at a time when the city is trying to reclaim road space from motorists and prioritize multi-modal infrastructure.
“It’s just too wide,” Martin said. “With that many lanes, bridges are twice as costly, roads are twice as costly to maintain. PennDOT is ignoring what the market is saying—that not everyone will be driving cars in 10 to 15 years.”
Martin fears the PennDOT traffic models ignore the phenomenon of induced demand—the idea that increasing road capacity will encourage more people to drive, negating any efforts to improve congestion.
“If you make the road wider, people will fill it with cars,” Martin said. “Instead of driving through New Jersey, they’ll drive through Pennsylvania. If you build it, they will come.”
Martin also said that larger roads would separate communities in Harrisburg and increase traffic and noise. The 1-83 Master Plan study concedes that neighborhoods along the highway may need noise walls after the expansion.
Harrisburg officials were also troubled by the project’s potential to displace dozens of businesses and residences, including the city’s public works facility on Paxton Street.
Harrisburg Finance Director Bruce Weber couldn’t estimate how much taxable property the city would lose to the lane expansion. But any revenue loss is significant to the city, he said.
The expansion could potentially affect historic homes in the area, including those adjacent to the 19th Street ramp and in Shipoke.
Despite the negative externalities, Penny said the current proposals represent the best options PennDOT could find during its preliminary planning effort.
“Right now, this is the best thing we’ve got,” Penny said. “It is subject to revision, but these were the best alternatives after weighing all the input.”
Martin said Harrisburg officials submitted comments to PennDOT, sharing their concerns about the project. Residents can view the entire plan and submit their own comments by visiting I-83beltway.com.