Christopher Santizo faces a challenge every time he drives to class at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke.
The 29-year-old graphic design and advertising student who commutes from Duryea, said construction on Interstate 81 routinely has made it difficult to get to class on time.
“I’ve been everywhere from stopped to 45 miles per hour,” he said.
He is among an estimated 70,000 drivers who traverse a half-dozen Pennsylvania Department of Transportation construction projects totaling more than $100 million between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Upon completion of those projects, PennDOT will begin widening the highway near Scranton to the tune of $174 million — ensuring years of additional construction zones.
Thomas McHugh, an LCCC associate professor and department chair who commutes north two to three times a week for business, knows the headaches of delays all too well.
He said the traffic is starting to spill over to roads running parallel to I-81, such as Birney and Keyser avenues in Lackawanna County, leading to backups on those roads, as well.
“Many people realize 81 is messed up all the time,” he said.
Once or twice a week, McHugh said, he opts to avoid as much of I-81 as possible, using the turnpike and doubling back from Clark Summit instead.
“What used to take me half an hour is now taking me an hour and a half,” he said.
But, he added, “I’d rather take the turnpike (Northeast Extension) and spend a few bucks. At least I know I’ll make it.”
Hit the brakes, wait
For drivers such as Santizo and McHugh, traveling I-81 in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties is a test of their patience.
Trouble is, it’ll be a years-long test: Drivers shouldn’t expect smoother sailing for quite some time.
While PennDOT spokesman James May said the current projects are on schedule so far and are within budget, it will be at least 2017 before those walls and barrels vanish from the highway. They include:
- $42 million near the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport exit.
- $28 million to replace several bridges in Jenkins Township.
- $31 million in bridge and road restoration work between Throop and Dickson City.
Whatever peace drivers find from a commute free of construction zones will be short-lived, however, as PennDOT will then begin its massive, $174 million widening of I-81 from the Luzerne County line to the Central Scranton Expressway.
Walter Stewart of Nanticoke, who used to work in construction, said drivers shouldn’t complain.
“They want everything done, then they bitch about it,” Stewart said.
“I find a lot of times people get upset when we’re not out working on roads because they need repair, and they get upset when we’re out there working,” May said. “We get it from both ends. But for the most part, people are understanding.”
Marian Schweighofer of Tyler Hill, Wayne County, said she gets caught up in the traffic once or twice a week when she has to travel on I-81 to Luzerne County for supplies for the family farm.
“It’s very much delayed,” said Schweighofer, who was stopped for fuel at the Petro Shopping Center in Dupont. “It’s certainly slow. The stop-and-go traffic is the worst.”
She worries about another vehicle rear-ending her pickup.
A wider highway
While the project to widen the six-mile stretch of I-81 is years away, PennDOT already is preparing for it.
“Any time we replace a bridge on 81, we are making them three lanes,” May said. That way the bridge will be ready to go when the highway is widened. (PennDOT also is considering a feasibility study on a direct connection from I-81 to the turnpike, instead of making drivers connect via a busy section of state Route 315 in Pittston Township.)
Like any massive road project, widening the interstate will take time to plan, design and construct, he said. Shifting the lanes for traffic once one side of the project is completed is more involved than just moving the lanes. Lines must be painted, barriers moved.
May said PennDOT tries to keep disruptions to a minimum by keeping two lanes open and not scheduling routine maintenance — such as pothole patching — on the busy corridor between Clarks Summit and Nanticoke on a Friday or between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. He said backups occur when there is a crash or when road crews have to do emergency repairs.
Trucker Richard Halverson of Cleveland, Tenn., who was at Petro recently, said he had to turn down a load because of construction delays.
“I understand the need for construction,” Halverson said, adding that what ticks him off is when he sees several workers standing around while only one appears to be working.
May said the interstate projects take longer for a variety of reasons.
“One, on the interstate, it is always complicated by the fact we’re not only trying to maintain traffic, but we’re trying to maintain two lanes of traffic at once,” he said.
Other factors also play into a project’s length — environmental concerns, possible right-of-way issues.
Times Leader intern James O’Malley contributed to this report.