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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Big doings in (and near) little Nanticoke

From 1992 through 2012, with an interruption in 2007 and another in 2010, I commuted some thirty-five miles to work from Nanticoke to Olyphant, PA via Interstate 81.  The commute took anywhere from forty minutes to infinity, depending on traffic, construction, and accidents. It is entirely possible that I am still stuck in one or more traffic jams on 81 right now, and my whole life since then has been nothing more than a dream fueled by exhaust fumes.

BE PREPARED TO STOP. Also, there's a tractor-trailer on fire up ahead. Have a nice day!
Since early 2012 my commute has been much shorter - five miles, requiring about ten minutes of travel time. Unlike my previous commute, this one has several alternate routes, all of varying distance but all essentially the same travel time. If there's an accident or construction or a random bike race or some other impediment on one of them, I can quickly and easily switch to an alternate route and still make it to work on time.

All that is about to end.

Times Leader: Work begins on long-awaited roundabouts in Nanticoke (January 31, 2016)

One of the most controversial recent road projects in northeastern Pennsylvania has been the revamping of the exit for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (AVP, in travel professional lingo) to and from I-81. The exit was workable as it was, if a bit awkward; people trying to get to some locations off the exit would have to make a U-turn at or near the airport. Someone had the bright idea to install a roundabout, or traffic circle, at the exit, so people getting on and off of 81 could have smooth access to all of the places that you can get to from the exit, and could easily access 81 north and south from those places. Yeah. That didn't work out. Whether from disastrously poor planning that made the roundabout too tight and narrow to be useful to the tractor-trailers that sometimes need to take that exit, or from the general absence of signs letting drivers know which way to go to get where they want to go (instead, the signs seem to wordlessly indicate "cyclopses this way, aliens that way"), or perhaps the general lack of usefulness of a roundabout in this situation, the project has been a disaster from the moment it was opened to the public.

The new project is about to place six roundabouts between me and where I work.

Nanticoke (left) and Hanover Industrial Park (right). All maps from Google Maps.
Nanticoke is a small, densely-packed city bordered by fairly heavily forested lands that comprise various townships. The biggest and most relevant in this situation is Hanover Township, which covers most of the area to the south and east of Nanticoke up to Wilkes-Barre. Nanticoke is a "bedroom community": people live there and sleep there but generally do not work there, owing to the general lack of industry within the city limits. There used to be businesses, a cigar factory and a throwing mill and a few others, but most of them moved away in the 1950's. Now most residents have to commute to work, whether thirty-five miles or just five miles.

I live near the place marked "Greater Nanticoke High School" on the center left of the map above. I work in the industrial park on the center right of the image. There are several ways I can get to work. The orange line representing Route 29 looks like it would be the most convenient, but it isn't, due to relatively heavy traffic on it and a fairly complex off-ramp interface. My preferred route involves taking the road marked 2010 on the map, a lightly-traveled two-lane road that runs right into the industrial park. On the return commute I prefer to take Dundee Crossing Road, which is on the center of the map above and runs from South Main Street (Middle Road) to the Sans Souci Parkway. This isn't the shortest or most convenient road, but it is the prettiest, and one that has fond memories for me. The trees along that road form arches over it, creating a forested tunnel of sorts. Late afternoon sunlight in the Summer and Fall creates beautiful effects. The road passes under an old, disused bridge not far from Middle Road and through a tunnel near the Sans Souci Parkway. My grandfather used to take us for rides in his blue Dodge Dart along that road, and would always beep the horn as we passed through the tunnel - something I still do once in a while.

Nanticoke is fairly tightly-packed. Its boundaries enclose a lot of houses, some schools, Luzerne County Community College, a supermarket and some shops, some river flood plain, and a historical relic called Concrete City. It had an industrial park put in once upon a time, but no industry actually moved into it, and it now is simply a long access road that leads to some houses that are technically outside of the city limits. But the map above shows several spots just to the east of the city that have been stripped of trees. These look to be new industrial parks being planned in Hanover Township. But what sort of industry will they bring? More warehouse and call center jobs paying $10 - $12 an hour?

Map showing Nanticoke city boundaries and surrounding area
In any event these industrial parks and the jobs they bring will lie outside of Nanticoke's city limits, and therefore will provide no tax revenue to the city itself. Yet they will cause significant problems for the people of Nanticoke, at least over the next three years.

Three turning circles will be added at the intersections of Middle Road and Prospect, Espy, and Kosciuszko Streets
Three of the six turning circles coming to the area will be along the road in the lower left of this photo. The area enclosed in the square-ish region is Luzerne County Community College, bordered by Kosciuszko Street on the east, Prospect Street on the west, Middle Road on the south, and - well, on the north it's bordered by a gully, but for neatness' sake let's say Field Street on the north. Turning circles will be placed at the intersections of Middle Road with Prospect Street, Espy Street (at the middle bottom of the above image, heading south off the bottom of the picture), and Kosciuszko Street. In addition there will likely be an entrance to the new access road - essentially a bypass from Route 29 to Kosciuszko Street that will relieve traffic from the heavily-populated Middle Road - at the left of center of the image above. (A road has already been cleared there, and heads into some of the cleared areas on the upper right of the image.) Three turning circles in such a small area - there will barely be a quarter-mile between each one - seems excessive.

An additional three turning circles will be added, one near Dundee Crossing Road (right of center of map), another where Route 29 intersects Middle Road / South Main Street (Wilkes-Barre), and a third midway between (just to the left of the lime green square)
Three more turning circles will be added outside of the Nanticoke city limits. One will be near Dundee Crossing Road, right of center in the image above. Another will be near where Route 29 intersects Middle Road / South Main Street. A third will apparently service the as-yet-unconstructed industrial park, and will be somewhere to the left of the lime-green square on the center-right of the image above.

Now the bad news: the road closings.

• Dundee Road closed from May 2016 to May 2019
• Espy Street closed from April to August 2016
• Prospect Street closed from March to October 2017
• Middle Road west of Koscuizsko Street closed September 2017 to August 2019
• Koscuizsko Street closed from March to June 2019
• Middle Road at exit 2 over state Route 29, closed August to October 2019
I'm not sure how extensive these closing will be. I doubt "Kosciuszko Street closed September 2017 to August 2019" means that residents of Kosciuszko Street will have to park their cars blocks away and walk home. More likely it means "intersection of Kosciuszko Street and Middle Road, no traffic allowed past..." - well, where? There's a new housing development right near that intersection. Will the residents be able to get to their houses? Will there be access to LCCC from the Kosciuszko Street entrance? Will students at the high school and elementary schools on Kosciuszko Street still be able to get to school? Probably. But I don't want to presume too much about what this project might bring.

Dundee Crossing Road, closed May 2016 through May 2019

The biggest loss for me will be the closure of Dundee Crossing Road for three years, from May 2016 to May 2019. I will miss that road. I drove on it very little until I started at this job, and then took it initially for the sense of nostalgia. I have become fond of it, and enjoy the ride. I don't know what the next three years will bring, and I don't know if I'll have any need of this particular road when it re-opens in May 2019.

All this is just at the initial stages. Some construction has taken place already, taking advantage of the unusually warm Winter we've enjoyed until recently. But projects like this can easily take much longer than the original timeline indicates. As with many things, we'll have to wait and see how things work out.

UPDATE, February 26, 2016: Dundee Road is now closed. More than two months ahead of schedule.

UPDATE, March 9, 2016: The Larmel Inn at the corner of Espy Street and Middle Road has been torn down.

UPDATE, March 29, 2016: There is a detour in place for Espy Street, which is now closed to through traffic.

UPDATE, April 1, 2016: Middle Road will be closed at Espy Street starting April 4. This closure is scheduled to last through September.

UPDATE, December 8, 2016: The roundabout on Middle Road and Espy Street opened on December 2, 2016. (The original schedule stated it would be closed through August 2016. A later schedule put it at October 2016.) Next phase of construction on Middle Road should begin in March 2017 when the Prospect Street project begins.

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