Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Worthy Expense? Harrisburg council debates value of conducting highway study

Aerial view of I-83 in Harrisburg from 19th Street to the Susquehanna River. A PennDOT proposal would double the width of this segment of the highway.

Can Harrisburg convince PennDOT to alter its planned expansion of I-83? Should it spend money to try?

City Council debated those points on Tuesday night, as it discussed hiring Kittelson & Associates to perform a study of the project.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse tried to convince council members to allocate $72,500 so that the Harrisburg-based engineering firm could perform a traffic and community impact study on PennDOT’s proposal to double the number of lanes coming off the South Bridge, a plan that would profoundly impact South Harrisburg.

Papenfuse said that he hopes that, following a study and recommendations for changes, PennDOT would be receptive to reducing or adjusting the footprint of the project.

“It’s true that it’s a done deal that there will be a widening of I-83,” he said. “It’s not a done deal in that the design is final.”

Last October, PennDOT unveiled a plan to widen I-83 from six to 12 lanes from Shipoke through South Allison Hill, which would displace as many as 28 city residences and 20 businesses, mostly in low-income and minority neighborhoods. The project also envisions a new highway ramp, which would doom the city’s current Public Works facility on Paxton Street.

Council members all seemed to oppose the project. However, a disagreement ensued over whether the expenditure for the study would be a good use of money.

“I just don’t want to spend $72,000 for a useless study,” said council President Wanda Williams. “Do you think you’ll have that much power over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that they’re going to change their design?”

Papenfuse responded that PennDOT officials indicated to him that they would be open to design changes to lessen the impact of the project. However, the city would need to back up any proposals for change with data, thus requiring the study.

“Yes, it costs $72,000, but you have to have a study,” he said. “You have to have data.”

The money would come from the city’s substantial fund balance, Papenfuse said.

Currently, the project is in the preliminary engineering phase, and actual construction, assuming it occurs, would be years away.

Councilman Dave Madsen said he’d feel more comfortable with the proposal if the city received written confirmation that PennDOT would consider making changes in response to the city-funded study.

“We can play around with the verbiage, but something that says, ‘We won’t ignore this,’” Madsen said.

In the end, council seemed split on the proposal, which should come to a vote during next week’s legislative session.

“It’s still relatively early in the process,” said Councilman Westburn Majors. “Yes, $72,000 is a lot of money, but I think it would benefit us to do this.”

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