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Pennsylvania DOT Tackles Major Harrisburg Bottleneck on I-83

by: Debra Wood
Crews pave a ramp on Section 1 of the I-83 project in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Crews pave a ramp on Section 1 of the I-83 project in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
A bottleneck for years, the beltway around Harrisburg – Pennsylvania’s state capital – is receiving $1 billion upgrades from the state’s transportation department.

“We have capacity needs, old pavement needs and some of the ramp designs are outdated, and they are related to safety,” says John M. Bachman, Senior Project Manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

The Harrisburg Interstate 83 Capital Beltway includes a section of Interstate 81, a section of Interstate 83 and Route 581. About 110,000 vehicles travel on portions of the beltway daily. By 2050, the traffic volume is expected to grow to 150,000 daily.

The current project is one of three segments on I-83, which was built 60 years ago. Section 1 will add a traffic lane in each direction, so the interstate will have three 12-foot lanes, southbound and three northbound. The section also will have a widened 26-foot-wide grass median with a concrete barrier and a fourth continuous auxiliary lane between interchanges. McCormick Taylor of Harrisburg served as the lead design consultant.

PennDOT completed master planning for the 11-mile long I-83 segment of the beltway project in 2003. The goals are to address the aging road conditions, increasing traffic volumes, and adding safety features to promote economic viability and preserve quality of life in the corridor. The department has collaborated with municipalities, local schools, emergency service providers, the capital area transit providers, and the capital area greenbelt.

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Two I-83 projects have been completed. Those are the I-83/U.S. 22 Interchange Safety Project, finished in 2011, and the I-83/PA 581 Interchange Bottleneck Safety Project, which wrapped up in 2015.

Construction on Section 1
PennDOT completed preliminary engineering and environmental studies for the first 2-mile section of I-83, between I-81 and the Union Deposit interchange, in 2014. Additional right-of-way was needed from a residential, commercial, and industrial mix of property owners. The department awarded two contracts for this section in Dauphin County.

New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co. of New Enterprise, Pennsylvania, received the first $34 million contract and completed replacing three overhead structures with wider bridges in May 2019.

“That enabled the mainline widening to start right away,” Bachman says. “We did not have a lot of right-of-way to clear for those bridges. Therefore, we were able to get to those sooner.”

PennDOT awarded the second $107 million contract for Section 1 in July 2018 to J.D. Eckman of Atglen, Pennsylvania. The family-owned business began in 1945. The construction company now employees more than 500 employees and remains family operated.

“One of the challenges is the sheer number of people that drive up and down that highway on a regular basis,” said Mike Deiter, Assistant Construction Manager at PennDOT. “The amount traffic makes it a challenge to get equipment in and out and materials delivered.”

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Crews are working behind concrete barriers but access the work zone, supplies and equipment must use the same highways as everyone else.

“Some of the challenges we had as the contractor were the limited work space and access, which complicated the project and the work sequence,” says Ryan Zerbe, Project Manager for J.D. Eckman.

Certain activities, including ramp work, require overnight or weekend lane closures. Traffic continues uninterrupted during the day. PennDOT also has used rolling stoppages at night on the mainline.

The work includes highway widening and paving with asphalt, building four new mainline bridges with concrete girders spanning above surface streets, and constructing cast-in-place retaining walls and sound barriers. J.D. Eckman is using GPS technology for grading. PennDOT required soil stabilization for the subgrade. That is a mix of cement, water, and soil to provide a more stable base, Deiter explains.

Bachman estimates the construction work in this section is about three-quarters complete. “It’s straightforward construction,” Bachman adds. “But we’re in an urban area, so things are tight.”

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Widening and repaving began on the outside, with traffic maintained on the inside. Once the outside was complete, crews moved traffic to the new pavement and began work on the inside.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf suspended all highway construction activities. Crews received no advance notice. Toward the end of the day on March 16, 2020, Zerbe learned all work had to stop. Everyone was sent home, not knowing when they would be called back. This project was one of the first to restart in April 2020, Deiter reports.

“We lost four weeks,” Zerbe recalls. “Even with losing those weeks, we still wanted to stay on track.”

Crews were able to make up 90 percent of that time and will be worked through the winter, completing demolition work on two bridges and pouring footers and abutment walls, which Zerbe explains are the easier elements of a bridge to heat.

Zerbe adds that partnering with the DOT had a big part in overcoming the COVID-19 shutdown. The project now is expected to complete early in 2022.

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“The coordination between the contractor and the department is something I am proud of,” Deiter says. “It’s a large project with so many different people, foremen, inspectors, managers. We’ve all worked well together, which makes my job easier.”

Future I-83 Projects
Sections 2 and 3 pass through busy communities with businesses, schools, community facilities, residences, historic properties on the National Register of Historical Places, and environmental resources.

I-83 East Shore Section 2, the Eisenhower Interchange, spans from south of the Union Deposit Interchange to 29th Street. It has been designed to minimize effects to the surrounding environment. The East Shore Section 3 extends from 29th Street bridge to the Susquehanna River.

In these sections through traffic will be separated from vehicles entering and exiting the interstate on collector-distributor roads.

These projects are in final design, Bachman said. Construction may start in 2022 and extend into 2034.

Photos courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

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