Changes to I-81 Interchange near airport will open land, ease access.

Last updated: April 18. 2013 11:46PM - 5300 Views
By ANDREW M. SEDER



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PITTSTON TWP. — The Federal Aviation Administration has signed off on a plan that will allow the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to embark on a multimillion-dollar project on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport land to improve airport access.


On Thursday Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey D. O’Brien called the news “a big deal” and said it will open up more than 100 acres of undeveloped airport land to economic development. O’Brien is a member of the Bi-County Board of Commissioners that oversees the airport.


PennDOT plans to start a long-awaited project this summer that will accomplish two things:


* Reconfiguration of the Interstate 81 interchange that will consolidate what is four on- and off-ramps in the Avoca area into two.


* Create a series of four roundabouts that will change the look of the entrance and exit to the airport.


Another phase of the project will construct an extension to the existing Navy Way, including construction of a bridge over the Pennsylvania Turnpike that will create better access to and from the businesses in the Grimes Industrial Park. The easement for the 16.4 acres the FAA approved this week for PennDOT, O’Brien said, will allow the airport to market the land for development.


O’Brien added the airport will be paid $121,000 by PennDOT for the easement.


“The money is nice, but at the end of the day it’s the opportunity that matters most,” O’Brien said.


PennDOT is expected to open and award bids April 25 and work is expected to last through 2015. The estimated cost of the project is at least $50 million.


Part of the project calls for the construction of a .85-mile access road from the existing airport entrance off I-81, over the Turnpike and connecting to Commerce Boulevard in the Grimes Industrial Park so trucks can have better access to the interstate and alleviate congestion on Dupont streets. The exits did not need airport approval, but the connector road work does.


For motorists using the new I-81 southbound exit ramp heading to the airport or the industrial park, they’ll have to drive through three roundabouts.


For those heading to the airport using the northbound interstate exit, they’ll have to go through one circle.


For those leaving the airport or industrial park and heading to 81 northbound, they’ll have to traverse one traffic roundabout. If their goal is to get on 81 southbound, they’ll have to circle around three roundabouts.


Roundabout concerns


Airport Executive Director Barry J. Centini said there is a concern over how confusing the roundabouts might be for drivers and what happens if a vehicle overturns in the roundabout closest to the airport terminal and blocks access. But he said PennDOT has deemed the concerns have been addressed.


PennDOT spokesman James May said the roundabouts have been designed with the largest 18-wheelers in mind.


O’Brien said that while the roundabout portion of the project is not something he is a big fan of, he’s looking at the positives of the project and sees the trade-off as a win for the airport and Dupont Borough.


There has been interest previously from companies looking to locate in the unused western portion of airport grounds, but without an access road or ready sites, the companies went elsewhere. O’Brien referenced a Honda proposal a few years ago that sought land close to the airport for a manufacturing facility but “we did not get it because we didn’t have a ready site.”


Once the road is built and access to the industrial park from I-81 is made easier, O’Brien said that stretch of land could be very attractive to job-creating businesses.


“This puts us is a much more competitive place,” O’Brien said. “And it provides us access to the western part of the property.”


Centini noted that that land value will increase greatly once the road is in place.

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