Three people were killed in a May 2014 crash on Interstate 78 East near the Krumsville exit. This stretch of the highway is pegged for a $175 million PennDOT project meant to make the road safer. (Chris Knight / SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL)
PennDOT is getting ready to launch a $175 million reconstruction project along a dangerous 8-mile stretch of Interstate 78 known for its heavy truck traffic and unusually high rate of traffic fatalities.
Work is slated to begin next fall on the section that runs from the Lenhartsville exit at Route 143 east to the New Smithville exit at the Berks-Lehigh County line — a rolling, curvy and perilous corridor of the interstate.
The massive project will widen the highway’s shoulder, add climbing lanes for trucks, replace guardrails, improve drainage and rehabilitate several bridges.
If all goes smoothly, the project should be wrapped up by late 2022.
Ongoing safety concerns — dating to the 2007 Valentine’s Day storm that left motorists stranded on the stretch for more than eight hours — led to the project, according to PennDOT spokesman Sean Brown.
The corridor is the main artery leading into and out of the Lehigh Valley’s thriving warehouse and freight economy.
In a 2014 study, the state estimated about 45,000 vehicles traveled that portion of the highway daily — with tractor-trailers making up about 35 percent of that figure.
The thoroughfare’s winding, hilly contours make it difficult for tractor-trailer drivers to see traffic ahead of them, and its low and narrow shoulders leave no room for quick pull-overs in the event of trouble.
Meanwhile, drivers who get stuck behind rigs slowly climbing hills become frustrated and pass when it isn’t safe.
“That’s a really tight section of the roadway,” Brown said. “There’s not much of a shoulder and no median. This project looks to widen that corridor and bring it up to more modern standards.”
The problem was magnified three years ago after a fiery tractor-trailer crash near the Krumsville exit that killed three people.
The tractor-trailer driver, Vincent Espinvera of New Jersey, failed to see slowed or stopped traffic stop in time and struck seven vehicles, setting four on fire, according to police.
Espinvera was charged with a litany of felonies, including three counts of homicide by vehicle. Court records indicate a warrant was issued for his arrest in August 2015 after his failure to appear in court while he was released on $10,000 bail.
More recent crashes along the corridor include a violent chain-reaction wreck in May that injured three in Greenwich Township, and a fatal wreck in September near the Krumsville exit that killed a Montgomery County man.
Just after the 2014 crash, PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said a recent study had already cemented plans to make fixing the stretch a priority.
The study found the 8-mile section had 71 percent more crashes than other Pennsylvania expressways. Its fatality rate was 40 percent higher than elsewhere in the state, according to studies cited by PennDOT.
PennDOT was unable to provide updated figures on the accident rate on Monday.
As it prepares for the project, PennDOT is working on acquiring rights of way and easements — a process that has some property owners on edge.
The project is expected to affect some 70 parcels, according to Krause and Kinsman, a Kansas City, Mo., law firm specializing in property rights.
The firm, operating in eight states including Pennsylvania, will hold a public informational meeting for those property owners at 6:30 p.m.Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Upper Macungie Township.
The firm monitors projects affecting landowners and reaches out to those affected during the right of way acquisition portion of the project, said Megan O’Neill, director of operations and client outreach for the firm.
“Every landowner has a story about their piece of property,” O’Neill said. “We’re there to make sure they’re being compensated properly for whatever is being done to their land.”
The meeting is the first hosted by the law firm in the Lehigh Valley, O’Neill said. The scope of the project places it in the category of medium- to large-sized road projects for the firm, she said.
Adam Krause, a partner with the firm, will be on hand Tuesday along with Kelvin Morris, one of the firm’s Pennsylvania attorneys, to provide a basic education on property rights and to answer questions from those affected.
“The proposed reconstruction of I-78 has many landowners worried about losing their land to eminent domain,” Krause said in a news release.
Among the topics slated for discussion are whether a property owner can stop the government from seizing property, what to do if a landowner disagrees with the fair market value presented by PennDOT, how the eminent domain procedure works and whether a landowner can negotiate personally for land compensation. O’Neill said these are issues many people are unfamiliar with until they’re faced with the proceedings.
Brown said PennDOT does not comment specifically on issues relating to the right of way process for a project, but said the state does everything it can to come to an amicable agreement in an effort to avoid eminent domain litigation.
“There is always compensation for properties the state needs to acquire,” he said, adding that a real estate appraiser is used by PennDOT to find a fair value for any land the department needs.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: An informational public meeting about property rights involving the Interstate 78 project hosted by the Krause & Kinsman law firm
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday 11-28-2017
WHERE: Holiday Inn Allentown-I-78, 7736 Adrienne Drive in Upper Macungie Township