The Lehigh Valley’s population is growing and it’s growing rapidly.
That was the message from Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
She spoke Wednesday at the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce Transportation Forum at Mack Truck in Allentown.
With a Gross Domestic Product of $49 billion – more than some states – the Lehigh Valley is attracting people to the tune of about 4,000 new residents a year.
To keep that growth as a positive and not a negative thing, she said the region needs to be proactive in preparing for that growth.
“Change is occurring and it’s inevitable,” Bradley said.
She said traffic patterns and employment profiles are going to be significantly impacted as the region grows both in industry and population.
She said, for example, there are currently 96,000 people employed in the manufacturing and transportation industry, second only to the number of people employed by the health care sector.
And she said they are sectors that continue to grow.
She said the planning commission predicts that in the next six years the Lehigh Valley could have almost another 44 million square feet of industrial production in operation.
The increases in the manufacturing and transportation industries will have the largest impact on bridges and traffic.
And officials in the region are looking at the places where new industry and a larger population will impact the transportation infrastructure.
The Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) is looking to bring efficiency to its routes to better get people from where they live to where they work.
The Lehigh Northampton Airport Authority (LNAA) is almost 90% finished with its $35 million airport improvements to Lehigh Valley International Airport, which includes a new terminal connector and added TSA lanes to speed the process of getting travelers to their destination.
The Lehigh Valley International Airport also added direct flights to Denver on June 14 and is still looking to attract airlines to serve cities such as Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Passenger rail is another improvement to the region’s transportation infrastructure that is being investigated, but officials warn they’re very early in the process.
Bradley said the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently invested $300 thousand in a feasibility study to bring passenger rail service between the Lehigh Valley and the New York City/Newark area.
PennDOT will be studying what current infrastructure exists now and what kind of improvements will need to be made.
“This is before we can even get in line for rail development,” Bradley said. After all the work, she said it may still not come to fruition.
Of course, the Lehigh Valley’s roadways are still the heart of transportation in the region and Mike Rebert, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for highway administration, said the department is investing in a $90 million, multi-year transportation study to assess repair and expansion needs.
“We want to catch problems before they get bigger,” Rebert said, referring to the long repair job that will be needed after the recent I-95 bridge collapse in Philadelphia, which will have a major negative impact on traffic throughout the corridor.
He said it’s important to address the structural integrity of the state’s bridges and roadways before there’s a catastrophe.
He said with current supply chain issues, the already long process of repairing the bridge will take even longer. He noted that it will take at least two-and-a-half months to get the steel beams needed for the project, before work can begin.
Rebert said work is needed in the western part of the Lehigh Valley right now. He said that the Route 222 bypass has succeeded in bringing new business and people to that part of Lehigh and Berks counties, but that growth has now necessitated additional road work to handle the added traffic in the area.
He said there are several projects planned for the stretch of I-78 that goes through the Lehigh Valley including upgrading interchanges and widening the roadway where possible.
Another major undertaking, which could get underway in 2025 is the widening of the 378/Hill to Hill Bridge in Bethlehem to ease traffic into the city’s south side.
Bradley also pointed to the environmental impact of the region’s growth and care needs to be taken to protect the Lehigh Valley’s air and water quality.
She said the region’s electric vehicle infrastructure is something that is being worked on, with PennDOT saying it’s shooting to have EV stations available every 50 miles on the state’s highways.
But Bradley said everything must be on the table.
“We really have to look at the infrastructure system differently,” she said.