Arterial Relations: Widening a one-mile stretch of Pennsylvania roadway far from routine
The widening of a one-mile stretch of Park Avenue roadway near Altoona, Pa., was far from routine. The nine-year project impacted more than 80 properties – businesses and residences – resulted in more than 35 right-of-way acquisitions and bordered active sports, amusement, and recreational facilities. Despite these challenges, the project, completed in late 2010, garnered strong public and property-owner support, the result of extensive public outreach.
Park Avenue primarily serves the Lakemont section of Logan Township on the outskirts of Altoona between State Route 36 and Interstate 99. It is the primary access road to several popular regional attractions, including Blair County Ballpark, home of the Double-A Altoona Curve baseball team, Lakemont Park, with the world’s oldest roller coaster and amusement rides, an office park and conference center, and a skating rink.
Existing situation. Several factors led the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) District 9-0 to initiate improvements along the route. Plans had been announced for a new shopping center, and additional commercial development sites were proposed at the northern end of the roadway, which would create greater traffic demands on the local roadway network in Logan Township.
In addition, the township had recently rezoned the residential neighborhood abutting Park Avenue to commercial, and it was anticipated that a 60% change in use would occur over the next 20 years. This was at a time when traffic from Interstate 99 heading to regional attractions on Park Avenue was often stopped on the thru lanes of the Interstate while waiting to exit at the Frankstown Road interchange. A Project Needs Study showed that, when combined with anticipated traffic growth based on historical data from the region, the planned commercial growth in the area would increase Park Avenue traffic from 6,000 to 7,000 daily trips at the time of design to nearly 13,000 daily trips by the year 2030.
The central challenge to improving Park Avenue traffic conditions was control of vehicular access to the roadway and protection of pedestrians in a manner that at the same time would accommodate higher running speeds. The original corridor had nearly 30 access points, was lined with residences along the eastern side, and had a speed limit of 25 mph. In addition, at the southern end of the corridor, traffic wove through residential areas to reach State Route 36. Recreational events prompted some local landowners to offer private parking, contributing further to traffic congestion and safety concerns.
Gaining public support. It was evident that the widening of Park Avenue would have a sizeable impact on the surrounding community. Keeping the public involved and informed was critical to maintaining a positive image for the project, the engineering profession, and the transportation industry as well as to moving the project forward. Much of the initial public outreach occurred between 2002 and 2006, before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, traditional outreach methods were used.
Two groups with distinct concerns were the owners of the businesses and recreational venues along Park Avenue and those living in the residential area that would be directly or indirectly impacted by construction. PennDOT formed a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) at the outset of the project comprised of representatives from key community groups, including planners, local government officials, the residential community, businesses, emergency services, and public transportation.
Through careful facilitation of the CAC, the project team was able to convey to Lakemont residents that growth and development in the study area was imminent and that accepting change was in the best interest of the community as a whole. The group met with PennDOT and design team members regularly throughout the project development phase using a workshop format that allowed each representative to voice concerns and provide feedback. Design initiatives such as a linear park, biking/hiking trail, and bus pull-offs took shape with feedback from the CAC. Concerns such as driveway access and the temporary construction impacts on businesses were also successfully addressed.
The advisory committee was involved with the project team at every major milestone during the project development phase. Meetings at major decision-making points promoted a sense of trust with the committee and with residents. While accepting that the project was needed for the area’s economic stability and growth was not easy, a facilitated advisory group helped this project overcome public resistance, which under normal circumstances would have slowed the project considerably.
Context-sensitive solutions helped fit the Park Avenue project into the surrounding area, which consisted of the Blair County Ballpark, Lakemont Park, and the residential community. Presentation of before-and-after photographs/renderings of these solutions included a landscaped median treatment, pedestrian facilities, ornamental lighting, and bus-stop shelters. This project also included the installation of a multi-use recreational and pedestrian access trail.
Acquiring land. Because the proposed highway improvements impacted more than 80 properties, with 36 residential and one business displacement ultimately required, particular attention was given by PennDOT to the right-of-way acquisition process. A special right-of-way meeting was held with property owners who were directly affected by the project. A combination of public meetings and project newsletters kept everyone informed of the right-of-way acquisition process.
A project website posted newsletters and other project-related materials for easy public access. Despite the large number of properties affected, 86 percent of residents supported the project. This was a testimony to the successful efforts of PennDOT and the design team to effectively address concerns and put forth a project that reflected positively on the development process, the engineering profession, and associated efforts to integrate land planning with transportation improvements through a positive public involvement experience.
Creating a safer arterial. To improve safety and flow, a controlled-access system was introduced that reduced the number of intersections within the project limits from 12 to seven and realigned driveways to Lakemont attractions so that traffic could be channeled for better flow. Turnarounds were provided on roadways that are now closed to the new highway, and the seven designated intersections provide easy access to Park Avenue for local residents. A widened median provided left-turn lanes at intersections as well as refuge at certain locations for pedestrians crossing from the residential area to attend events. This reconfiguration of the corridor, along with the widening of the highway itself, allowed the speed limit to be increased to 40 mph, better accommodating through traffic during baseball games and the annual well-attended events at Lakemont Park.
With the higher speed limit, protection of pedestrians was also a concern, so a linear park was included in the design that serves as a buffer along the residential neighborhood east of Park Avenue. A hiking and biking trail runs through the park parallel to the roadway, but more removed from it than a typical sidewalk would be. Although none of these features represents design innovations, they were effectively combined to address the unique situation presented by a roadway running between a residential area and a heavily used commercial district.
Providing convenient access to Lakemont attractions while maintaining traffic flow was another challenge that the design team addressed using established techniques customized to the needs of the surroundings. Bus pull-offs, conveniently located for pedestrians attending events, were provided on both the northbound and southbound sides of the street. Curb ramps were provided at the pull-offs and at intersections for the benefit of those with disabilities. In addition, a widened sidewalk in front of Blair County Ballpark accommodated pedestrians waiting to enter the stadium or for trams that shuttle fans back and forth from a nearby parking garage.
Other improvements. The Park Avenue redesign required construction of a new bridge that
spans Brush Run near its southern terminus. An innovative design helped to expedite installation and minimize future bridge maintenance. Prior to construction of the new Park Avenue, traffic wove through a residential development at that end of the corridor, using a two-lane bridge farther east to cross the creek. The new bridge is a 90-ft, single-span structure that carries four lanes of traffic along a straight roadway across the stream. Its design was completed efficiently using a ‘hybrid’ approach: PennDOT-approved bridge design software, known as BRADD, was used to design the superstructure, and manual calculations were used to design the substructure, which consisted of integral abutments. These abutments eliminate the deck joints at the ends of the bridge that typically require maintenance and contribute to bridge deterioration.
With Brush Run and several tributaries in the project area, coordination with FEMA was an important element of this project. The new four-lane bridge over Brush Run was just 150 ft downstream of the dam that creates Lakemont Lake. The new bridge crossing created the need for a Conditional Letter of Map Revision submission to FEMA that documented floodplain impacts associated with proposed bridge construction and removal of the two-lane bridge. This important process was completed in a timely manner, and FEMA approval was obtained without negatively impacting the design schedule.
In addition, new federal requirements were issued during construction that affected design standards for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additional ADA access locations and redesign of original features were likewise incorporated in a timely manner and did not impact the project construction schedule.
Benefiting from cooperation. Today, as one drives along the improved Park Avenue, a number of features that provide enduring value to the community are evident – the linear park, bus pull-offs in front of the ballpark, and ADA amenities at major intersections.
However, many additional features and details that may be less apparent were also included in the design. For example, the ornamental lighting along the biking/hiking trail in the linear park was specified to match earlier lighting that had been installed along the sidewalk at the ballpark. In addition, benches have been provided along the trail for pedestrians. A man-made ditch along the linear park diverts storm runoff into detention basins at opposite ends of the project, and the basins have been planted with vegetation to preserve the area’s wetlands resources and attract native wildlife. Amenities such as these will stay with the community for years to come, beautifying an area that attracts so many for recreation, shopping, and other leisure activities.
Other benefits provided by the project have to do with the well-being of businesses located among the Lakemont attractions. One visible result of the project team’s work with the local stakeholders was the redesign and construction of a driveway and additional parking area outside the offices of Delta Health. Because a daycare center was opened during project construction at this location, the scope was expanded to include these amenities, providing safe and convenient access for the children. Other business concerns that were successfully addressed included reconfiguration of parking for the Lakemont Business Park, the VIP parking lot for the Altoona Curve, a new bus entrance at Lakemont Park, and maintenance access and security facilities at the park.
The redesign of Park Avenue was completed on schedule despite intense public involvement and complexities inherent in the project. PennDOT District 9-0 gave the project an overall “Exceeds Expectations” rating in its final performance evaluation. In addition, the final project construction cost of $10.7 million was more than $1 million below the original design estimate.
This article was contributed on behalf of Erdman Anthony.