"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 29, 2015

Will A New Exit Be A New Opportunity?

I’m a big supporter of transportation alternatives to the automobile.  But I also live in the real world, and in that world too many places have too few such alternatives.  Even those with the best alternative connections cannot depend on them entirely, or even primarily.  I thus find myself in the odd position of saying something positive about a new road connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Municipality of Norristown is an excellent example of good connections connections not being nearly good enough.  Norristown’s rail links to Philadelphia are among the best in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Regional Rail Line to Center City and the Route 100 line to 69th Street intersect at the SEPTA Transportation Center on Lafayette Street.   A substantial parking garage and connections to local bus lines make Norristown a regional transportation hub.  Rail connections have helped the long-suffering town, but a road now under construction holds the promise of a great deal more, and not just to Norristown.  Its completion will mark yet another twist in the tangled relationship between Norristown and the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the sixty-five years that they have coexisted.  Back in 1950, Norristown spurned a connection to the Turnpike; today it sees one as its salvation. 

The Pennsylvania Turnpike arrived in the pastoral farmland known locally as “King of Prussia” in late 1950.  This was, for a brief time, its “Eastern Terminus,” but everybody knew that the Commonwealth was committed to completing the Turnpike from state line to state line, so the terminus was temporary.  Plans for another extension followed quite shortly, in fact, and the public release of a preliminary map caused an uproar in Norristown.  The reason was a turnpike exit planned for Norristown’s eastern border with Plymouth Township.  The entire business and political community (okay, mostly the same people) arose in virulent opposition, headed by the man who knew something about virulence, Borough Councilman Paul Santangelo.  His ward lay directly adjacent to the affected area, and change out of his control was a non-starter for him.  To be fair, however, he wasn’t in his usual role of opposition, but stood with virtually everyone else in opposing this exit, which they were sure would hurt downtown Main Street.  Letters, petitions and caravans to Harrisburg were employed, and The Commonwealth actually listened.  It relocated the exit to where it still is, further into Plymouth Township, to connect to Germantown Pike.  

Well, downtown Main Street collapsed anyway, and Norristown notables and merchants could only observe with real pain the different trajectory those areas close to the Turnpike exits experienced.  Mind you, the Turnpike had a “Norristown Exit.”  The sign said so.  Unfortunately, said exit did not connect to Norristown.  In fact, until recent upgrades improved the situation, a driver had to pay very close attention to a couple of very small signs or find himself well up Germantown Pike before realizing the problem (I have always wondered whether this was deliberate, by a Turnpike Authority smarting from the overwhelming rejection Norristown administered to its original plan).

So it followed that Norristown, which at first glance on a map (remember that archaic item?) appeared to be located at the center of a road transportation network, was actually, upon closer inspection, seen to be isolated from it.  Later generations of Norristown activists would rail against this lack of a true connection, while time largely erased the memory of whose fault it really was.  The Turnpike’s “Norristown Exit” remained a local sick joke for a very long time.

But all that is changing, and Norristown will, at long last, have a real connection to the Turnpike.  This connection will actually lead to Norristown, Lafayette Street to be specific.  You will be able to use it within…well…years.  The target date as of now is 2020, but we should all expect that to slide.  They always do.  A press release by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission dates the origin of the effort to 1999, when the County funded a study about the idea, but it had been batted around for years before that.

Now, finally, physical evidence is beginning to mount, and the future can be at least dimly ascertained.  Work in Norristown to upgrade Lafayette Street is well along, the stretch through Plymouth Township is under construction and PennDot recently announced that it had obtained funding to construct the Turnpike intersection itself. 

Josh Shapiro, Chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners, calls the project “a game changer, as it will be a key part of revitalizing Norristown, improving access to both municipalities, increasing smooth traffic flow and reducing congestion on Ridge Pike and Main Street.”  He might very well be correct to call this a “game changer,” but if it is, then the increased activity it will foster will also generate additional traffic, so don’t get your hopes too high about the “reducing congestion” part.

Another—and much more significant—reason is that this project will definitely have a considerable effect on Conshohocken and perhaps even on Bridgeport.  It will provide the former with a second access point to the Turnpike.  That is definitely going to impact traffic on Fayette Street and Matsonford Road, as some drivers from both boroughs will discover that the new route is actually better for them.  In the larger view, it will both relieve the fear of some about success “choking” Conshohocken, and may be the key to yet another surge of development (toward another “choking” perhaps?).  It will open up Conshohocken Road for development , which means Plymouth Township may gain more than Conshohocken in such a new surge, but few will be unhappy about spreading the new wealth around, except those in the area during rush hour.

While the new interchange/road will directly affect Conshohocken, I'm keeping an interested eye on Bridgeport.  Connections to major roads are coming closer and closer to the borough.  A Lafayette Street connection to the Turnpike would be the nearest yet, just across the river, and promises a much quicker journey to the Turnpike than driving down U.S Rt. 202.  Could a new travel route tempt more people to take advantage of the considerable price difference Bridgeport offers over its surrounding areas?  The contrast between West Conshohocken and Bridgeport is remarkable, considering how close they are and is solid evidence that accessibility to major roads is a determining factor.  Those roads are getting steadily closer to Bridgeport, and at some point may swing the pendulum of prosperity toward the borough.  Time is money, which includes commuting time, so the appearance of a major new connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike is going to have a much broader effect that just on Norristown.  Count on it and plan for it; you know that the land development specialists are already doing both.