Our view: PennDOT must balance road work with driver inconvenience

This file photo shows rush-hour traffic on Interstate 81 the way it’s supposed to be — that is, moving freely. That certainly wasn’t the case Wednesday as road work caused a roughly 8-mile backlog between Nuangola and Wilkes-Barre. -

It’s often said there are two seasons in Pennsylvania: winter and construction.

And by construction, we mean road construction. Part of that job is filling in those countless potholes that popped up due to the countless number of freeze-thaw cycles that plagued this part of Penn’s Woods almost all the way through April.

Some of the holes are so bad, we’ve seen crews making road cuts so they could fill in not just the hole itself but the entire area around it.

That, of course, is a more lengthy method of repair. But the results should last longer.

Now, before we set the dial to blast and complain about a traffic tie-up this week due to Interstate 81 work, we have to acknowledge what our friends at PennDOT are up against.

The agency is responsible for maintaining about 40,000 miles of roads, roughly 850 of which are right here in Luzerne County, according to a 2016 state report on highway data.

But the work doesn’t stop there. We didn’t even mention the 25,000 state-owned bridges that have to be looked after at regular intervals.

Simply put, there’s too much infrastructure to keep everything in tip-top shape.

Add in budget constraints and typical Northeastern Pennsylvania weather, and a reasonable person should have no problem seeing why the state has to prioritize road work. That means some minor to moderate problems don’t get fixed, or get only temporary repairs.

It’s reality, and we understand.

We also recognize the work is a labor-intensive process that will delay traffic.

But — and it’s a significant but — there have to be much better and less disruptive ways to go about some of these important duties.

Case in point: Wednesday’s backlog of traffic on I-81 that stretched roughly 8 miles from the Nuangola interchange all the way to the Wilkes-Barre 165B exit for Route 309.

For one driver caught up in the mess, it turned a typical 25-minute commute from Drums to Wilkes-Barre into a frustrating two-plus hour ordeal. It also created a danger, as at least one tractor-trailer nearly rear-ended a much smaller vehicle in the constant stop-and-go-only-5-feet chain of congestion.

All this for what?

Simple pothole work, the results of which were plainly visible after a mile or so of orange cones that made traffic creep by in single-file fashion, creating the huge backlog.

What’s more, there wasn’t a road worker in sight by late afternoon. Just more cones and slow-moving traffic.

We’ve since been told a section a guardrail was replaced due to a tractor-trailer crash this week, and PennDOT took the chance to get some road patching done and to make cement repairs on a small bridge.

A good idea in theory. But in practice, it created headaches for too many.

In the future, we would ask PennDOT to run a simple cost-benefit ratio: Is patching a half-mile or so of highway worth inconveniencing thousands of drivers for several hours?

Most would say no way.

The simple alternative is night work. During later hours, there is considerably less traffic and chance for disruption.

PennDOT has crews regularly work later shifts during winter, due to the constant threat of snow and ice. Why can’t there be a crew on later to fill holes or do other simple work year-round at off-peak times for traffic volume?

Not everything can be done like that, but a lot of smaller projects could be tackled.

At the very least, workers should be under orders to pick up cones as soon as possible to start restoring two lanes of traffic.

The motoring public would greatly appreciate these gestures.

— Times Leader

This file photo shows rush-hour traffic on Interstate 81 the way it’s supposed to be — that is, moving freely. That certainly wasn’t the case Wednesday as road work caused a roughly 8-mile backlog between Nuangola and Wilkes-Barre.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/web1_Traffic_Interstate-traffic_TLStock.jpgThis file photo shows rush-hour traffic on Interstate 81 the way it’s supposed to be — that is, moving freely. That certainly wasn’t the case Wednesday as road work caused a roughly 8-mile backlog between Nuangola and Wilkes-Barre.