It’s been said by many a public official and resident that turning left onto Race Street from Lehigh Street in Catasauqua is like “taking your life into your hands.”
Living in a house near the three-point intersection, Joshua Fritz has a prime-time view of its traffic woes, the bane of residents and commuters for decades. During rush hour, he said, he witnesses close calls almost every other day.
It’s always dicey to escape his driveway as cars coming from the opposite direction make similar quick escapes during breaks in traffic.
“For me to get out of here, I have to drive like I’m in New York City,” he said.
The intersection was the subject of a PennDOT traffic signal study in 1979. It’s been called a “nightmare” intersection in newspaper articles since the 1990s. Regional planners started drawing up improvement concepts as early as 2000.
Generations later on Monday night, Catasauqua officials signed the official resolutions necessary to allow PennDOT’s proposed $12 million to $14 million improvement project to move forward, which involves widening roads and installing three traffic signals at Race Street’s intersections with Lehigh, Front and Second Streets. Race Street is a state road, and the Federal Highway Administration and PennDOT are funding the improvements.
The planned improvements also would add turning lanes and sidewalks, and prevent eastbound travelers on Race Street from turning onto Front Street and creating a traffic jam.
Today, it can take cars 15 to 20 minutes to crawl through the traffic on Lehigh Street up to the intersection with Race, said Luis Arias, manager at Alvarado Appliances on Lehigh.
Council President Vince Smith said he believes the design will turn what is now a “disorganized chaos” into a safer passage into the borough and its soon-to-be-developed Iron Works site on Front Street, fitting into the borough’s master plan to reduce traffic congestion and design a cohesive downtown.
But the vote Monday night — called for in a special meeting after the first vote earlier in the month failed — was split.
What PennDOT needed to move the project forward was for the borough council to sign off on sidewalk and traffic signal maintenance agreements, as well as a reimbursement agreement for moving a water line in order to widen the Race Street bridge.
One council member in favor of the plan was absent at the Sept. 8 meeting, and the remaining were in a 3-3 deadlock over the matter. Mayor Barbara Schlegel broke the tie with a “no” vote.
Brian Bartholomew, a council member of 16 years and lifelong Catasauqua resident who voted no in both meetings, said he agrees that improvements are needed at Race and Lehigh Streets, such as a traffic light. But he thinks the project goes further than it needs to, such as by adding lights at Front and Second Streets — which the borough is responsible for maintaining.
He takes Race Street four or five times a day and said the traffic he sees in the area is not as bad as it was when the borough first started looking at it.
The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission first proposed a concept to improve the intersection around 2000, which involved realigning Lehigh Street to cross the Catasauqua Creek directly to the intersection of Race and Second Street, said PennDOT spokesman Ron Young. The proposal fell through because it would have crossed the property of the George Taylor House, a National Historic Landmark, and posed environmental issues.
The project stalled due to funding constraints, Young said, but after receiving a funding boost in the mid-2010s, the agency could once again study the intersection and propose improvements that don’t involve bisecting historic property.
Local and state officials have been communicating about these options and updates continuously over the years. Bartholomew said he received the detailed map of the current iteration, the one to be voted on, a few weeks before the Sept. 8 meeting. So when it came time to vote, he still had questions. He suggested a new traffic study be done, and wondered whether residents on Second Street, whose parking would be offset to a lot across the street to make room for road widening, had been notified about losing spots.
“I’m not against the project, I just want the answers,” he said.
The offsetting of about 30 parking spots on Second Street was a primary point of contention for council member Paul Cmil, too.
Both remained unchanged in their votes Monday night; four voted in favor of the plan, and one was absent.
Cmil also questioned the ethics of repeating the vote.
It’s a rare occurrence, solicitor Jeffrey Dimmich said, but procedurally acceptable. There were an unusual set of circumstances at the last meeting — a councilman absent, the mayor called to break a tie on an administrative resolution rather than a legislative one.
“What the motion today did was to verify the majority position on council,” he said.
The initial failure of the motion at the first meeting drew ire of many residents on social media, who felt the project is a notch forward in the revitalization of the borough.
“If some of the revitalization projects don’t happen, I fear ALL of our property values will be hurt in the long term,” Barbara Carlson wrote on Facebook.
The design as it stands today is nearly complete, Young said. After it’s complete, by late 2020 or early 2021, PennDOT will put it out to bid for construction.
Fritz has only lived at Race and Lehigh for six years. To him, a traffic light can’t come soon enough.
“It needs to happen, honestly,” he said.
Morning Call reporter Kayla Dwyer can be reached at 610-820-6554 or at [email protected]
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