U.S. 11 just south of the Borough of Greencastle will close for three weeks starting Wednesday, Aug. 19, for a bridge replacement project.
Local emergency officials are preparing for the associated detour and delays — and they are bracing for what could happen if Interstate 81, the designated detour route, shuts down while U.S. 11, the other main north-south road through the area, is closed.
A few bus routes in the Greencastle-Antrim School District also will be affected as students head back to school on Aug. 24 for their first in-person day since schools were closed in March due to COVID-19.
The small bridge is located in front of Corelle Brands, formerly known as World Kitchen, between Commerce Avenue and South Washington Street. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's designated detour is between U.S. 11 at Exit 3 of Interstate 81 in Antrim Township to Swamp Fox Road at Exit 10 near Marion.
"The existing bridge is a concrete slab structure that was placed in 1936. The structure has deteriorated to the point of needing to be replaced," according to information provided by PennDOT when the project was announced last year.
CriLon Corp. of Somerset has been hired by PennDOT to replace the bridge with a box culvert for $517,945.96.
The road, traveled by nearly 13,000 vehicles a day, is scheduled to reopen by Wednesday, Sept. 9, according to PennDOT.
In an emergency
The project was originally scheduled to take three months. It was accelerated to three weeks after Greencastle Mayor Ben Thomas Jr., a member of the Rescue Hose Co., organized a meeting with PennDOT, engineers, fire company representatives and Greencastle police in June 2019 for discussion of concerns.
High on that list of concerns is what will happen if Interstate 81 is closed due to an accident.
The closure of I-81 would cause "heavy/stopped traffic and disoriented motorists on unfamiliar roads — many of which are not able to take large numbers of or large vehicles. Greencastle Borough will likely be most impacted," according to Rescue Hose Co. Fire Chief Kevin Barnes.
The suggested detour if I-81 closes would involve Mason-Dixon Road, Williamsport Pike and South Antrim Way.
Issues with this route include an elevated railroad crossing on Mason-Dixon Road and intersection problems at Mason-Dixon Road and Williamsport Pike and Williamsport Pike and Antrim Way, Barnes said.
There already has been a spike in accidents at Williamsport Pike and South Antrim Way in the past few months, Greencastle Police Chief John Phillippy told borough council last week.
"I can't imagine interstate traffic going through that intersection ... it could be disastrous," Phillippy said.
Greencastle police have emergency numbers for PennDOT, which is prepared to provide traffic control assistance if I-81 is closed.
Even when U.S. 11 is open, I-81 shutdowns cause problems.
"Depending on severity, closures can last several minutes to several hours. Several minutes of even a single lane closure equals a lengthy backup and motorists trying to find an alternate route," Barnes said. "Expect increased traffic flow on secondary roads as drivers travel unfamiliar routes and follow GPS to explore ways around the closure. We are developing best practices in the event of a closure, but all will depend on timely deployment of a sufficient number of personnel for marginal success."
He also anticipates many drivers will use Baltimore Street in Greencastle via Exit 5 of I-81 as their detour on a daily basis rather than PennDOT's designed Exits 3 and 10.
Emergency services personnel also will use Baltimore Street to I-81 when responding to calls south of the bridge on U.S. 11.
"The most likely detour — South Washington to East Baltimore, Interstate 81 south to Exit 3 — is approximately 5 miles and — with no traffic — adds five minutes to responses in several of our most active incident areas," Barnes said.
The Rescue Hose Co. has received permission to add a unit from nearby Maryland to all calls in the area south of the construction site to reduce the impact of delays due to the detour.
"As the construction approaches, we continue to review options and improve/implement alternatives within the department and externally," Barnes said.
Four buses and a few vans will be impacted by the closure if U.S. 11, according to Travis Blubaugh, director of transportation, safety and security for the G-A School District. They will use Pensinger, Hykes and Ridge roads and Williamsport Pike as detours.
"At this time we are trying to avoid having buses use Interstate 81 due to the amount of traffic and difficulty and congestion at Exit 5," Blubaugh said.
"We will have to adjust our times accordingly for the buses/vans affected by this," Blubaugh said. "Students will have to get picked up earlier to accommodate additional time in the mornings. In the afternoon, our times between secondary runs and elementary runs will be affected which may affect our lineups at the elementary and primary buildings. However, with the adjusted procedures for arrival and dismissal due to COVID-19 we may not see the impact this year as we would have in years past.
"The timing of this project is certainly not ideal with it happening during the first few weeks of school and everyone getting back into their routines for busing," he continued. "This year is a little more unique with the changes we must adhere to for COVID-19 on our school buses. It will take everyone’s patience and flexibility during these times to do the best we can with the situation we have to work with. Complaining and arguing will not make our situations any better, but working together collectively will."