Road rage at 11th and Philadelphia

The stoplight intersection at Philadelphia and 11th streets in Indiana, Pa., looking east along Philadelphia, the central thoroughfare in the borough’s downtown commercial district. The photo was taken roughly where Whites Run flows through a culvert beneath Philadelphia Street, according to state Department of Transportation maps. PennDOT is preparing to replace the culvert and remove the traffic signal. Photo by David Loomis, Friday, July 12, 2019, 9 a.m.

An analysis

By David Loomis

INDIANA – For a half century the borough’s population has been sliding. In 1970, the U.S. Census recorded 16,100 residents; in 2010, the head count dropped to 13,975, a decline of 13 percent.

The 2020 count is likely to show continued decline countywide. Meanwhile, a parallel decline is occurring at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the county’s largest employer, where student enrollment is facing free fall and faculty hiring is all but frozen.

Echoing the population trends, the state Department of Transportation has advised borough officials that it will not pay to replace a traffic light at the intersection of 11th and Philadelphia streets when it replaces a nearby underground culvert. The signal at the intersection on the western edge of the borough’s downtown commercial district is “not warranted,” according to an Indiana PennDOT staffer in a July 11 phone interview.

The bottom line for PennDOT is the bottom line, said Jamie Arehart, the agency’s community relations coordinator in Indiana.

A PennDOT map showing the western section of Indiana borough’s downtown commercial district, including the intersection of north-south 11th Street and east-west Philadelphia Street. The path of Whites Run is depicted as a faint blue squiggly line a half-block west of the intersection. Click map to enlarge.

“PennDOT must take down the traffic light at 11th and Philadelphia Streets to re-build a culvert that goes underneath this intersection — a project that is necessary for the safety of our motorists,” Arehart wrote in a July 11 email message. “Once this roadway improvement is complete, we will not replace this traffic light as the traffic volume at this particular intersection renders it inessential, according to engineering guidelines.”

She continued:

“While we understand some residents feel uncomfortable with change, many of those same residents question what PennDOT does with taxpayer money,” Arehart wrote. “We are saving it. Re-installing a traffic light that is no longer needed is a waste of tax payer money.”

Arehart thought borough officials agreed.

“I’m assuming the borough rejected the light,” she said in a July 9 phone interview.

 

OFFICIAL BOROUGH REACTION sounded like screeching tires.

“From the very first meeting more than a year ago at which removing the light was first suggested, the Borough has been adamantly opposed to removing the light,” borough council President Peter Broad wrote in a July 9 email interview. “That includes the entire
Council, the manager, the director of public works, and the chief of police.”

Council Vice President Gerald Smith agreed.

“The values of PennDOT, aka to speed up vehicular traffic, is directly at odds with the values of this community,” Smith wrote in a July 11 email. “We do not believe that our community is better served by speeding up traffic through town and making non-vehicular traffic less safe.”

But what of traffic volume? PennDOT argues that counts show declines in traffic, along with populations. But the agency’s data invite different conclusions.

For example, two, 24-hour mid-week counts conducted three years apart – one on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, and another on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 – recorded a traffic increase at the 11th and Philly streets intersection. In 2016, the count was 12,344 vehicles; in 2019, the count was 14,199, a boost of 15 percent.

A PennDOT statistician explained the increase as “just variance in the data.” The staffer also noted that one count was conducted by PennDOT, the other by a consultant.

“You’d probably need more data,” the staffer suggested.

 

MAYBE SO. But borough officials seem equally concerned with unquantifiables.

For example, they did not couch their objections to losing the traffic light in the context of the cost of a new one. Traffic signals are not cheap – up to $500,000 to buy and install, plus maintenance of about $8,000 a year. That would represent real money in the borough’s annual budget of $6.5 million.

Neither did borough officials wonder what a culvert-replacement project involving an underground stream invisible to motorists has to do with an overhead traffic signal a half a city block away.

Instead, borough officials are contrasting the values of the borough and the bureaucracy.

“Their ‘calculations’ are based on a completely different value system, one that favors cars, not people,” wrote Smith, the borough Council vice president and public works committee chair. “We will be asking the community to reach out to state leaders to let them know it’s not okay to tear the heart out of Indiana’s own Little Italy. It’s my opinion that PennDOT is more concerned with pinching pennies than community development.”

State Rep. Jim Struzzi responded to an email query to say he met with borough officials on May 29. Sen. Joe Pittman did not respond to an email.

__________

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu

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