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Quicker fixes for I-81

August 11, 1998

When lawmakers from four states gather Thursday in Chambersburg, Pa. for their annual meeting on regional cooperation, one topic sure to dominate their discussions will be Interstate 81. The highway, described by one local official as a "critical economic lifeline" is becoming so crowded that future development along its route could be affected. We've heard plenty about adding lanes and new bridges, but unfortunately, not much about alternatives means of easing congestion.

Such options need to be explored for two reasons. Just the planning for widening I-81 would take a year or maybe two, according to Michael Ross, director of the Franklin Area Development Corporation. Actual construction could take a decade or more to complete, Ross said.

The region cannot afford to spend that time just waiting. It needs a strategy to reduce traffic on the interstate until funding to expand it is available.

We recommend several approaches. Maryland currently has a program which helps potential homeowners with some of their costs if they agree to purchase a home near their workplace. If all four states had such programs, there might be a significant drop in the number of commuters on I-81. The states could encourage employers to participate as well, by giving workers incentives to carpool to their job sites.

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As for new industrial sites, the states should put a priority on developing those with rail access, so that any new truck traffic generated is primarily local.

These proposals shouldn't be interpreted as an attack on the trucking industry. They aren't. But if there's going to be room on Interstate 81 to accommodate big rigs serving existing and future businesses, the Quad State conferees need to think about some solutions to highway congestion that don't require 10 years to put together.

And while they're thinking about transportation, the conferees shouldn't forget that one of the region's goals is (or ought to be) cooperation on tourism. Tourists will be more inclined to return if the road to what they're visiting isn't wall-to-wall traffic.

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